Tag Archives: Schwartz

13 – 13

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“I’m unaccustomed to scolding, but I have to say I am rather disappointed with the lot of you.”

Glory, indeed, did not look upset with them, but only pensive. Regardless, the assembled apprentices mostly lowered their eyes abashedly in response. Schwartz and Ami exchanged a glance, he uncertainly, she with an arched eyebrow.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…in our defense…”

“In your defense,” Glory said with a languid little smile, “you are neophyte Guild members, without personal sponsors or the likelihood of obtaining such, and your experiences have given you cause to be somewhat paranoid. Still, I should have thought the overarching lesson of your last round of troubles was that the Guild can be trusted to have your back when enemies are pursuing you. I seem to recall that was settled in part by several senior members who do not get along rallying together to defend you.”

“It’s a fair criticism,” Jasmine agreed with a sigh.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Yes, well… I don’t know much about Guild philosophy, but as an outsider I have a hard time seeing where you’re coming from. I mean, every cult should have the assumption that members would support one another, right? And…the entire problem here is that some individuals are turning against their cults via some kind of…” He trailed off, looking flustered, as Glory turned an inquisitive gaze on him.

“If anything,” Ami observed, “the Guild’s practice of deliberately fostering competition, I should think, would make them more susceptible.”

“It’s about a statement of core philosophy,” Rasha said, in the quiet but controlled tone she had been cultivating. “Each religion is about something specific, something beyond a simple group identity. Whether members do or don’t back one another in a crisis is in service to that idea. In the case of the Thieves’ Guild, it’s about resisting corruption and overweening ambition. Glory’s right, but…so are you.”

“Listen to you,” Tallie said fondly, lightly touching Rasha’s hair. “Lecturing us on theology now! Apprenticeship’s done you a world of good.” She and Layla had perched on either side of Glory’s apprentice, who had taken a position in the center of the couch and sat with deliberately demure, almost regal posture. Rasha had changed a great deal in the month since moving out of the apprentice dormitory; every time they visited she seemed to be experimenting with a different style of clothing, which had ranged from androgynous to almost excessively feminine. Today’s was closer to the latter end of the spectrum, an embroidered robe cut and padded to suggest curved lines. Despite the obvious growth of her self-confidence, though, Rasha plainly felt more comfortable with the physical proximity of girls than the boys, a fact which Tallie and Layla in particular seemed to have immediately picked up on.

“Well, let’s not turn this into a theological discussion,” Glory advised, smiling wryly at them. “Those are tedious even when they don’t turn into arguments. What’s done is done and I’m not interested in recrimination; that’s Style’s job.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius groaned. “She’s gonna string us up by our feet…”

“She did tell us not to leave the Casino’s immediate environs, didn’t she?” Layla mused. “Oh, dear.”

“I suppose,” Glory continued thoughtfully, “I am partially to blame for your general predicament. Being too closely associated with well-established Guild members is, according to the scuttlebutt, largely why none of you have been approached by potential sponsorship despite several of you being very promising.”

“If by blame,” said Jasmine, “you refer to you helping save our lives, I assure you no one here objects.”

“Hear, hear,” Ross grunted.

“Still, that aspect of the situation is worth considering,” Glory said. She glanced at Rasha, and a knowing smile passed between them.

“Uh oh,” Darius accused. “You two are scheming something.”

“Not even subtly,” Rasha replied, smirking.

“For the time being,” Glory said, “let’s return to the matter at hand. I was not aware of a conspiracy such as you describe, but between Mr. Schwartz’s adventures within the Collegium and this Sister Ildrin trying to waylay you, it’s clear that some such thing must be afoot.”

“Well, that’s discouraging,” Tallie muttered. “You’re the most connected person we know…”

“People often misunderstand the nature of a conspiracy,” said Glory. “They are, by definition, things of short duration and limited membership; depending as they do upon secrecy, exposure becomes more inevitable the longer they go on and the more people become involved. Shadowy groups blamed for a wide range of problems are mostly a myth, but conspiracies happen all the time. By the same token, even someone such as myself, who takes great pains to be in on all the gossip, is unlikely to learn of such a group. More significantly, this means that while I can easily point you to a number of figures in various cults who are known to be Church sympathizers, it is very unlikely that most of them are involved.”

“Do you have…any ideas?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.

“Well, first of all,” Glory replied with that knowing little smile of hers, “you are off to a decent start by coming to me, because what we need to do is involve the Guild. Here we have a secretive group clearly trying to amass and abuse power; putting a stop to nonsense of this kind is exactly why the Guild exists.”

“Noted,” Ross said, nodding emphatically.

“Second,” their hostess continued, “we must pare down the prospects. I believe you had the idea to use your divinations, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently patting Meesie, who was being unusually quiet and docile while in Glory’s house. “My craft can help us narrow down prospects more than identify specific individuals, so if you have other thoughts…”

“In fact, I have,” she replied, settling back in her armchair in a manner subtly evocative of a queen upon her throne. “There are more mundane methods, of course. I gather that Mr. Schwartz and Miss Talaari have your trust in this matter, apprentices?”

“Ami has been very helpful to us,” Tallie said sweetly. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Meesie began squeaking violently, and actually tumbled off Schwartz’s shoulder to the arm of his chair, where she rolled around on her back, squealing with mirth. He sighed; Ami just gave Tallie a cool sidelong look.

“Then in the meantime,” Glory said, “we will pursue established leads. Mr. Schwartz, how was it you first learned rumors of this embezzlement activity within your cult?”

He straightened up, frowning slightly. “Well… Sort of related to how I met these guys, actually. Bishop Throale was interested in making, um, less than official contacts within the Guild, like my friends here. He was securing some reagents that might be profitable in black market dealings to try to… Actually maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention that.” He swallowed, glancing over at the windows. Ami rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Glory said pleasantly. “Go on?”

“Well, so, because of that, he and I were more involved in the Collegium’s reagent stocks than either of us would normally be and he mentioned some things seemed to be going missing. Records not adding up with inventory, boring stuff like that. The Bishop didn’t seem concerned but I went and double-checked and yes, there were some enchanting supplies gone…the specific ones used for bladed weapon and armor maintenance charms. Stuff you don’t see much anymore, only the Silver Legions use them in any quantity. I mentioned it to them,” he gestured at the apprentices, “and Jasmine had apparently…well, there we’re past my part in it, so, y’know.”

“Any specifics?” Glory asked, daintily crossing her legs. “Remember, we are looking for names.”

Schwartz frowned and chewed his lip while Meesie climbed back up his sleeve to her perch. “Um. Well, Suvi Mosvedhi is in charge of the magical storehouses overall. She has lots of people working under her and I hardly know any of them. Let’s see… Carruthers Treadwell was the specific fellow who coordinated with the Avenists on exchanges…”

“Carruthers Treadwell.” Glory leaned forward suddenly, grinning. “Who, just yesterday, was abruptly pulled from his duties by the Chancellor of the Collegium for reasons which are not known outside its walls. It seems we have our in.”

“Who’s this guy?” Ross asked. “And how’re we gonna…in him?”

“Simple,” Glory said with a satisfied smirk. “I am having a little soiree tonight, as I do most evenings. I shall simply ensure that he is present. As will be the lot of you.”

“Um.” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “Carruthers is a bit of a houseplant. I’ve never heard of him attending a social event voluntarily.”

“He has never had Tamisin Sharvineh desire his presence,” she said glibly. “It’s as good as done.”

“Meanwhile,” Rasha added, “that gives us only a few hours to get you lot into some suitable clothes.”

“Ooh!” Layla and Ami both straightened up with sudden smiles.

Jasmine, on the other hand, went a shade paler. “Oh, hell.”


It was a much truncated group which went to meet the Guild’s emissary. Only the queen and Principia had been requested, but Ruda inserted herself into the party; her mother expressed approval at this, while Principia wisely kept her thoughts to herself.

The seneschal conducted them to the Rock’s throne room, where their guest had been asked to wait. It was smaller and generally less grandiose than its counterpart in Tiraas, its stone walls decorated only with banners and old weapons. Even the throne was little more than a large wooden chair, made from the timbers of the ship once captained by a long-ago Punaji king. Narrow windows along one side of the room admitted afternoon sunlight, augmented by strategically placed modern fairy lamps.

There were few seats in the room, just benches along the walls, but their guest had been led to one of these. A small folding table had been brought and laid out with tea and a plate of small sandwiches and pastries, with a servant attending closely. This likely wasn’t usual policy for guests in the throne room, but one glance at Quinn Lagrande banished any question as to its necessity.

Her lined face and pale gray hair revealed her advanced age even without the heavy stoop she suffered despite being seated. Incongruously, she was dressed like a frontier adventurer, with an open-collared shirt and trousers tucked into heavy boots. A wide leather belt around her waist carried a holstered wand and a dagger. At their arrival, Lagrande braced herself with one hand on a hickory cane and stood with a small grunt of effort.

“There you are,” she said before any of them could speak, her voice scratchy with age but still strong. “I gather I interrupted something important?”

“Yes,” Anjal replied without explanation. “I am Anjal Punaji, and this is my daughter, Zaruda. I believe you know Principia Locke.”

“Mm hm,” Lagrande said, giving the elf a wry look. “Oh, we go way back. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t kneel, your Majesty. The spirit is willing, but the spine and knees lack respect for authority.”

“I’d feel obligated to stop you if you tried,” Anjal said, smiling with genuine amusement. “And if you must be formal, I prefer Captain to Majesty. I damn well earned that one. What can we do for you?”

“At issue here is what we can do for you,” the old woman replied, shifting her focus to Principia. “Keys, where the hell have you been? You’ve been in town almost two days and for some damned reason we had to seek you out. Taking in the sights?”

“I’ve seen all the sights long ago, and climb down outta my nose, Heckle,” Principia retorted, folding her arms. “You were on the agenda, trust me. My squad was just heading your way when this most admirable young lady press-ganged us.” She cocked a thumb at Ruda, who tipped her hat.

“Yep, I’ll take the blame for that one. When Principia Locke shows up in town, I figured it was best to put a boot on her neck before the situation got even worse. Sounds like you know what I mean.”

“Heh.” Lagrande grinned at her. To judge by their yellowed state, they were all her original teeth. “That’s not a ‘general principles’ action toward a veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild. What’d she do to you?”

“I think you had something to tell us?” Principia said irritably.

“Nothing major, she just tried to drug me that one time.”

“You tried to drug a member of the Punaji royal family?” Lagrande turned an incredulous stare on Principia. “How in the hell has nobody killed you yet, Keys?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Look who’s asking who how she’s still alive—”

“HEY.” Anjal was accustomed to belting orders on deck in a storm; at that range she could be positively deafening. “If you Eserites wanted to put on a minstrel show, there are plenty of street corners not being preached on right now. Did you come here for a reason other than that, Lagrande?”

“Of course, your…Captain. Humble apologies.” Far from looking contrite, the old woman grinned unabashedly. “Yes, you’re right. We do have important information, which was being held for Keys, here, but then the Princess and her friends picked her up and we decided this had better not wait. To begin with, for the benefit of the young and the foreign in this audience, are you aware of just why so many of the Rust’s upper echelons have artificial limbs?”

“Because they’ve got crazy advanced magic and that’s a convenient way of showing it off?” Ruda suggested.

“True.” Lagrande nodded. “That’s definitely part of their motivation. I guess I should have asked why they have such a need for them.”

“Most of them are the Broken,” Anjal said in a much quieter tone. Principia gave her a neutral look, but Ruda frowned in open confusion. “This was well before your time, Zari, and be thankful for that. It used to be common practice for beggars on the docks to use children to mooch from the merchants. Children are inherently more sympathetic, and they sometimes made them more so by deliberately maiming them. Cutting out eyes, hacking off limbs.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Anjal clenched her jaw. “Your grandfather addressed this problem by creatively punishing anyone he caught doing it, which of course did not help. It was thanks to your father’s early actions that no one in your generation has had to suffer this.”

“What actions?” she asked. “I mean, if…”

“That’s the thing about governing,” the queen said with a sigh. “What works is rarely spectacular or romantic. If you want to put a stop to begging, you have to make sure that people have better things to do, and that doing them is worth their time. He did increase patrols on the docks, but more importantly he instituted economic reforms, created jobs, aggressively courted the dwarves and Narisians to engage in maritime trade through Puna Dara… All the boring shit that actually improves people’s lives. Such reforms are often hard to push through because whenever there has been an impoverished underclass for a long time, there are wise old men who think the problem with the poor is that they’re lazy and just won’t be helped.” She curled her lip contemptuously. “Arrogant bullshit, unworthy of a Punaji. People inherently want to work. We all have a need to create, to act, to contribute; the single most important thing for human happiness is taking responsibility for one’s own life. If society lets people do this, they’ll do their part. There will always be a few layabouts and general assholes, but they are a bare minority.”

“Our underboss is one of the Broken,” Lagrande added. “Fang gets around on one leg and one arm. He was never approached, though. The Rust are strategic; like all fringe movements they started by targeting the vulnerable, which didn’t include Eserites. But I didn’t bring it up just to make conversation. How’d you like to know where their secret headquarters is?”

Anjal scowled. “Is that all you came here for? They operate out of a warehouse on the docks. It’s not a secret.”

“Wrong!” Lagrande said gleefully, thumping her cane on the floor for emphasis. “That’s where they openly operate from, and there’s nothing in there but religious wacko paraphernalia. Places to keep and feed people, some administrative apparatus. But their true home, that’s all tied in with the sad, stupid story of the Broken. They’ve got a place in the old mines, and that has to be where they keep the crazy shit that makes their crazy magic work. Does the kid need a refresher on this as well?”

“The kid has a name,” Ruda retorted.

“Yes, a shiny new one,” said Anjal, giving her a disgruntled look. “But she’s right, Zari. When Broken kids got too old to be cute anymore, a lot of them were sent to work the mines in the mountains outside the city.”

“Whoah, what mines?” Ruda demanded, frowning. “I was always told we didn’t do much mining.”

“We don’t, but not because we can’t. There are minerals in those mountains; copper, mostly, some iron and gems. But Puna Dara has always done more business in trade than production, and we’ve prospered especially in the last ten years by cornering the market on the Five Kingdoms’ maritime trade. Your father managed that, in part, by closing down our domestic mining operations and buying minerals from the dwarves. After what the treaty between Tiraas and Tar’naris did to them, that bought enormous goodwill. So.” She turned a thoughtful gaze on Lagrande. “There are mines and quarries around Puna Dara, and nearly all are abandoned. And, not being idiots, we regularly have them patrolled and searched.”

“In a pretty cursory fashion,” Lagrande agreed, thumping her cane again. “A mine’s a great place to hide stuff.”

“How is it you know this, when the Punaji don’t?” Principia asked.

“Same way we knew you’d spent your time in Puna Dara visiting the Avenists, creeping on the street preachers, and hounding after rumors in dockside bars instead of coming to us,” Lagrand replied acidly. “The Thieves’ Guild in this city is six old grayhairs and two very bored apprentices led by a cripple. The last damn thing we’re about to do is climb up into the mountains our damn selves and then climb down into some godforsaken mineshaft after insane cultists who wield impossible magics. But what we can do is know things.” She grinned fiendishly. “Even after you sent Peepers off to the Empire—and by the way, asshole, thank you so much—we are connected in this city and the bulk of what we do is listening and watching. Anybody hears a rumor that even might be valuable to anybody else, they bring it to the Guild.”

“That’s true,” Anjal agreed, somewhat sourly. “They usually know interesting things well before the Crown does.”

“So we weren’t about to go after them,” Lagrande continued. “And we specifically have not shared this information with the Avenists or the Punaji government after what happened to the Fourth Silver Legion. Because they’d have no choice but to take action, and that would’ve ended…pretty damn badly. But!” The old woman grinned savagely and thumped her cane for emphasis. “Speaking of things we know, now it seems you’ve got two paladins, a dryad, and the biggest, meanest demon to walk the earth in a thousand years. And that’s another matter, isn’t it?”


Justinian always made time in his schedule to think; quite apart from the necessity of his meditations in keeping his mind calm and alert under the pressure of his duties, he could not function without the ability to carefully lay plans. Reacting swiftly to events as they developed was fine and essential, but a man without his own strategies, attentively crafted, was at the mercy of fortune.

Even so, he cherished the few extra opportunities that came up to lose himself in thought. Time spent navigating the labyrinth deep under the Cathedral, for example… Or situations like this one, in which he could do nothing but wait.

He sat before the magic mirror, watching mist swirl meaninglessly within it, and considering the current situation.

Events in Puna Dara were developing faster than he had intended. Once again, Tellwyrn butting in had created this difficulty, though this time it was not an unforeseen development. Princess Zaruda’s intervention had always been a possibility, and while bringing her friends along was the worst case scenario, he had already mulled what to do in this event. Now, it seemed they might be on a course to demolish the Rust far too soon. He needed that to be a struggle; the allied forces of the Church, the Empire, the Punaji and the cults had to be bonded through shared adversity. That also meant the Rust had to be presented as a very credible threat. Their attack on the Silver Legions had done that, but he knew what it had cost them, and that those young titans would cleave through their ranks far too easily if allowed. They must endure long enough for all their enemies to unite against them. He had his current operation in Tiraas working to secure his good name with the Silver Throne, but after the incident with Rector’s machine there was far too much damage there for him to trust a single ploy to fix it.

Could he distract them? Unlikely, and risky. Anything else he did in Puna Dara could create complications that would threaten his own interests. If he could somehow peel the students, or at least a few of them—maybe even just one—away from the city for a while, that might suffice.

Even alone in his office, he maintained strict control, and so did not smile. But the Archpope permitted himself a slight softening of his expression as his agile mind seized upon a solution. An elegant one, which worked neatly alongside the matter to which he was now attending. It would cost him nothing but a little extra effort…

As if summoned by the shift in his thoughts, the mirror cleared, revealing the worried face of Lorelin Reich.

“Your Holiness,” she said in clear relief, bowing her head. “Thank you so much for this. I know it must be an imposition.”

“Lorelin,” he said with a gracious smile. “You have earned my trust many times over; if you send word that we must speak, I can only assume that it is so. What troubles you, child? I hope you are not endangering your good name with the Empire.”

“I fear…I may be,” she said, frowning, and Justinian took note of the open worry in her expression. A model Vidian, she was adept at concealing her true thoughts, usually. “Your Holiness… I am not working directly with Imperial Intelligence. The told me they’d call on me when I was needed, and when a Hand of the Emperor summoned me, I assumed that was it. But…” The priestess swallowed heavily. “I… This must sound crazy, I realize, but…I think this man is insane.”

Justinian put on an expression of deep concern and leaned forward, revealing none of his satisfaction. This business, at least, was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. “In what way?”

“At first I thought his machinations seemed inept because I didn’t know all the details,” she said, “but more and more… He seems to be trying to provoke a confrontation with Tellwyrn which there is no possible way he can win. I can’t imagine the Empire would do something so reckless, when they’ve handled her so carefully since the last Empress’s reign. And…it’s his personal conduct, your Holiness. I am accustomed to schemers, but I have been around mentally unstable people. This man is the latter. But I know that’s impossible. He is a Hand of the Emperor.”

Justinian drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly. “I…am extremely glad you have come to me with this, Lorelin. All right…what I am about to tell you must be strictly confidential. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, your Holiness,” she replied, nodding eagerly.

“There was recently a problem with the Hands of the Emperor,” he stated. “The details don’t concern you and may be dangerous to know. What is important is that one of them may have gone rogue at the end of it.”

The color drained from her face.

“This is what you must do, Lorelin,” Justinian said earnestly. “Contact your handlers at Imperial Intelligence, and tell them what you just told me.”

“But…” The poor woman was clearly at her wit’s end; she forgot herself so far as to bite her lip. “Your Holiness, the Hand specifically instructed me to avoid contact with any other government entity.”

“Then,” Justinian said gently, “he is forcing you to violate the terms of parole. You were to remain in touch with Intelligence; by keeping you in communications silence in the last place they would look for you, he is hiding you from them. Tell them, Lorelin, exactly what you just did. You thought you were obeying the Silver Throne, but this man is dangerously unstable and may be creating instability in the Empire itself, which is what will result if a Hand of the Emperor overtly antagonizes Tellwyrn. She has, in fact, been working with Intelligence. I see little chance that they would want to move against her this way. Contact them in good faith and explain, and you will not only be upholding the terms of your plea bargain, you just might help save the Empire from one of its most immediate threats.”

Now it was she who inhaled and exhaled deeply, but nodded.

“What is he doing, exactly?”

“He’s stirring up the townspeople against Tellwyrn,” she said, frowning. “Which wouldn’t alarm me much as far as it goes, but with all the new construction and activity in Last Rock, plus the big cluster of foreign operatives up on the mountain itself… He doesn’t tell me everything, your Holiness, not by far. I know he has other assets. I don’t know what they might do, or can.”

Justinian nodded. “Then you will need to slow him down. Perhaps assist Tellwyrn in dealing with him.”

“I’m positive that he’ll know if I try to approach her.”

“I believe you,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Do not be so overt. I believe I can help you with this, Lorelin; you know as well as I that clever people can be shockingly easy to manipulate into error. It is often as simple as placing the right piece of information for the right person to find, and letting the rest of the dominoes fall. Once you tell this Hand who the Sleeper is, I suspect this whole matter may work itself out.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Advertisements

13 – 11

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“And so, you have come to me.” Ami Talaari smirked, folded her arms strategically under her bosom, and leaned against the frame of her apartment door. After having swept a disdainful look around at his entourage of junior Eserites, she had seemingly dismissed them from consideration and focused her gaze upon Schwartz. “Really, Herschel, you ought to have done so in the first place. Who else do you know who has her finger upon the city’s pulse?”

“Yo.” Darius, at the back of the little crowd outside her apartment door, raised his hand. Everyone ignored him.

“Aha, well, yes,” Schwartz said self-consciously, managing a weak grin. “It really hasn’t been all that long, Ami. I went to get these guys first because I thought they might be in immediate danger… But you’re the first person we’ve come to!” Meesie nodded vigorously, bounding from his shoulder to the top of his head and adding a squeak of affirmation.

“Because you’re being hunted?” She finally looked past him again, studying the apprentices with a bit more interest. “These are the Eserites you know, yes? Why not go to the Guild for help? I’m certainly not shy about my talents, but that seems, if anything, a better source of intelligence on movements in the city. Not that I can’t help, of course,” she added with a smug little smile. “Just…curious.”

“Well, the thing is…” Schwartz cleared his throat. “We’re not sure who to trust or where we can go at the moment, and even my rooms at the Collegium have been spied on, so that’s possibly not safe…”

“Yeeeessss?” Ami’s smile widened. “I’ll warn you I have little direct access to the Collegium except through you, Herschel. But give me a few hours and I’m sure I can turn up something.”

“Um.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, we just need to borrow your apartment for a little bit. I need a secure space to cast some divination, so we can figure out where to go next.”

Her smile instantly vanished. Ami stared at Schwartz in silence for two heartbeats, then took a step backward, grabbed the door, and swung it shut.

“Waitwaitwaitwait!” Schwartz squawked, sticking a foot in the doorway to block it. “It’s not just that, Syrinx is involved!”

She stopped trying to kick his foot out of the doorway, and pulled it a few inches back open, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion. “How?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know yet, and believe me all this is terrifying enough without her snooping around the periphery after the gods know what!” He surreptitiously wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door frame, seemingly unconcerned with the danger to them should she manage to shove his foot out of the gap. It at least gave Meesie the opportunity to scamper down his arm and add her earnest squeaks to his plea. “She’s not the only old familiar face that’s suddenly showing up in connection with this. Ildrin Falaridjad is involved; she tried to have Jasmine, Tallie and Layla thrown in jail so she could interrogate them!”

“Ildrin?” Ami’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why in the name of Boslin’s flute is she not in jail?”

“Being neck deep in a powerful conspiracy’s probably handy for that,” Tallie remarked.

“And,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “it was Syrinx who intercepted her and bailed them out. I know those two have a mutual grudge but I can’t help being very suspicious when Basra shows up being helpful.”

Ami heaved a deep sigh—very deep, and accompanied by a subtle shift of her shoulders and back that made her chest swell, prompting Darius and Ross to shift their gaze momentarily. Schwartz, at least, was apparently used to her enough to maintain eye contact. “Oh, very well,” she said with poor grace. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”

“You are a lifesaver,” Schwartz said emphatically, following her inside as she stepped back and let the door swing wide.

“Yes, well, I suppose someone has to rescue you, since your good friend Principia is out of pocket.”

He paused, prompting an annoyed throat-clearing from Darius, and then shifted aside to let the rest of them in. “How’d you know about that?”

“Forget to keep me in the loop, did you?” Ami positioned herself in front of the window and folded her arms dramatically, tilting her chin up. “Just because that elf is nominally friendly toward us doesn’t absolve her of being one of the most suspicious people we know. Believe me, I take great pains to be notified of any change in her routine. For example, her whole squad not showing up at any of their usual posts for a day and a half.”

“That is a wise policy,” Jasmine murmured.

“Holy crap, this place is nice,” Tallie said, adding a whistle as she peered around the apartment. “And you’re…a bard?”

“You were going to say just a bard, weren’t you.” Ami smiled smugly. “In much the way that you’re just a thief. We all have backstories, my dear. Touch that instrument and whatever problems you are having, they will increase by an order of magnitude.”

She hadn’t even been looking in the direction of Layla, whose fingertips were inches from the guitar propped upright on a reading chair, but Layla froze anyway.

“Uh, yeah,” Ross rumbled, gently taking Layla by the shoulders and pulling her back a few steps. “You don’t mess with a bard’s instrument. Ever.”

“My apologies,” Layla said, uncharacteristically demure.

“In case it doesn’t go without saying, now that my home is full of Eserites, I would prefer that there be no casual appropriation of any of my possessions.”

“Ami, there’s no need to get hostile,” Scwhartz reproved. “We appreciate your help very much, but you know quite well that Eserites don’t just grab whatever’s not nailed down.”

She just shook her head. “So! You are being stalked, apparently, by the Church loyalists, who by implication have become much more organized recently. I’m still lost on the point where the lot of you didn’t approach your own Guild first for help.”

There was a silence, in which even Meesie did not squeak.

“Wait, who?” Jasmine said at last. “Church loyalists?”

“Oh, really,” Ami said disdainfully. “Surely you didn’t think all this began in response to you.”

“I like her,” Tallie said in her driest tone. “She’s a sweetie.”

“Perhaps it’s best, after all, that you came to an accredited bard,” Ami said with a sigh, and turned to gaze out the window. She had a lovely view of a nearby park, surrounded by historic townhouses. “All of this descends directly from the Enchanter Wars; you lot and your troubles are only the latest manifestation of this conflict.”

While her back was turned, Darius carefully nudged Ross with his elbow, and then held both hands up in a cupping motion a good distance from his chest, waggling his eyebrows. Ross just shook his head, but Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla all swatted him simultaneously from behind. Despite her seemingly inhuman sense for fingers in the vicinity of her guitar, Ami did not respond to or appear to notice the chorus of slaps, continuing with her spiel.

“The Silver Throne and the Universal Church have been jockeying for influence for the last century, all because of the way the Enchanter Wars were ultimately settled. Before that, the Church was little but a formality, a kind of interfaith negotiating service. But then, Archpope Sipasian contributed to the outbreak of war by taking sides in the Salyrite schism, persecuting witches, and ultimately making enemies of the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Veskers.” She clicked her tongue as if chiding the long-ago pontiff. “So immediately, when Archpope Vyara took over, she tried to scale back the Church’s power to avoid more infighting. But then she also participated in a scheme to place a new dynasty on the Silver Throne, under the control of the Church and a couple of the dominant Houses. Then it turned out they’d backed the wrong horse entirely; Sarsamon slipped his leash and positioned himself as Emperor in truth. So the Church was left with a mandate to avoid assuming direct control over society, but also organized in such a way as to surreptitiously do so, and without the mechanism for which that organization was designed. Which has led to a push and pull within the Church, and between it and the cults, ever since.”

“This is real interesting and all,” Darius began.

“This is important.” Ami half-turned, placing herself in profile against the window, and several pairs of eyes shifted again. Including Tallie’s, which were rolled heavenward. “This is what you’ve blundered into; not some circumstantial thing that’s just popped up like your nonsense with those dwarves a few weeks ago, but a struggle that has been ongoing for a hundred years! I’m flabbergasted that you’re only just hearing about this. What do they teach you in that Guild?”

“Hey,” Ross protested. “We’re apprentices. None of us’ve been learning more’n a couple months.”

She snorted, managing to make even that musical. “As someone who is already acquainted with Ildrin Falaridjad, let me assure you she is a known partisan in this business, and has been for years. Basra Syrinx also has a reputation for being friendly toward the Church, even more than most Bishops, which makes it interesting that she’s siding against them now.”

“Basra never does anything without wanting something,” Schwartz murmured, stroking Meesie with his fingers. “Also, she really hates Ildrin…”

“The point is,” Ami said patiently, “those two are hardly the only people involved in this matter. Given a little time, I could get you a list of names of people who would almost certainly be involved, based on their known reputations.”

“That would help tremendously,” Jasmine said fervently.

Ami held up a hand. “Two important points. First of all, I assume you have more to go on than just Ildrin acting up? Because I have seen her using a stolen Izarite shatterstone to interrupt diplomatic proceedings by assaulting one of the participants. Just because she of all people is disregarding basic rules of decent conduct is not inherently newsworthy.”

“What’s a shatterstone?” Darius asked.

“An artifact kept in most Izarite temples for defense from attack,” Schwartz explains. “If you do any non-divine magic in its vicinity, it lets out a sort of pulse that neutralizes magic in the area and incapacitates all magic users except Izarite clerics. Well, briefly, anyway.”

“A typically Izarite notion of defense,” Jasmine said contemptuously. “Passive, indiscriminate, and easy to circumvent with a basic application of strategy.”

Ami cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Schwartz said hastily. “Well, the thieves, here, did an operation to bust up some kind of extortion ring within the Sisterhood and the Collegium. I helped them get info from the inside…”

“You’re mixing up your crimes, Herschel,” Layla chided. “That was embezzlement, not extortion.”

“Yes, anyway,” he said irritably. “It’s in at least two cults and probably more, which was why we were uncertain about involving the Guild. Also, someone was scrying on my rooms, which means I specifically am being watched, and to get through the Emerald College’s wards they are either a very powerful mage or also a Salyrite. Probably both.”

“Ah,” Ami said, turning to face them again and nodding once. “Well, that brings me to my second point: You should have gone to the Guild immediately.”

“Once again,” Layla began.

“As I told you,” Ami said, “this is a new, more aggressive outgrowth from an existing matter. It’s about Church loyalists—people within the cults who believe strongly in the Universal Church, sometimes even more so than their own cults, at least according to rumor. Activity of that kind has increased markedly in the last ten years, though Archpope Justinian is always above anything tying him directly to such…antics. But we are still talking about people choosing to side with centralized power, at the expense of other loyalties.” She loftily arched one eyebrow. “And you really think the Guild is in on this? I assure you, in the entire century such activity has been waxing and waning, no Eserite has ever been involved. Other cults have wiggle room for attachments, but such goes against the most fundamental teachings of Eserion. Honestly,” she added acerbically, “it is incredible that I should have to explain this to you, of all people.”

“It’s really impressive how I wanna slap her even while she’s helping us out a lot,” Tallie said thoughtfully.

“Yes, Ami is very gifted,” Schwartz said with a sigh.

The bard, fortunately, seemed amused by this observation. “I seem to recall from Herschel’s description that you lot had help from one Alan Vandro?”

“Ugh,” said Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla in unison.

“Yeah,” Ross grunted. “What do you know about Vandro?”

“Only his reputation,” Ami said, grinning, “which includes the ugh factor. But also that he is an Eserite purist of the kind that annoys even other Eserites. If anyone could be relied upon not only to have no involvement in a Church loyalist campaign, but to do everything in his power to thwart one, it would be he.”

Jasmine drew in a long breath through her teeth. “Well…there’s that, I suppose. Personally, I think we’re better off dealing with the Guild directly, if it’s safe…”

“What about Glory?” Layla said. “Tamisin Sharvineh?”

Ami shrugged. “She, of course, is much more connected with circles of power, but again, still Eserite. Honestly, she is likely to more know about the ins and outs of this group if they are indeed beginning to organize something, as you imply.”

“They are definitely organizing something,” Jasmine said, frowning heavily. “I’d been thinking this was just a few opportunistic individuals, but if it’s instead a suddenly more orderly pattern of behavior by a long-standing group… Them skimming resources and money from two cults suddenly takes on a whole different aspect. That’s not just crime, it’s an insurgency strategy.”

“And further reason to turn to the Guild,” Ami added, again folding her arms. “The Thieves’ Guild’s intolerance for other people committing crime, especially organized crime, has always played a part in preventing rebel movements from funding themselves. It’s one of the reasons governments are so tolerant of Eserite activities.”

“So,” Darius said slowly, “if these people are suddenly ramping up their activities… They’re not just stealing money or liking the Church anymore. They’re planning to do something.”

“And,” Layla added, “the reaction to us suggests we came closer than we realized to finding out something they don’t want known.”

“Thank you very much, Ami,” Jasmine said. “You’ve helped us tremendously already.”

“You mean, by making you think about what you already knew?” Amy swept a grandiose bow. “A bard’s work is never done.”


Upon her return to the Rock, the royal family’s seneschal directed Teal to a chamber deep in the fortress, which he called an armory. There were, indeed, weapons along the walls, but it currently seemed to be serving as a combination laboratory and gathering place. Several more people were present than she’d expected to find when asking where her classmates were, one of them in the middle of a story when she entered.

“—two harpoon launchers, but mine were attached to treated cables that wouldn’t burn or cut under anything less than dragonfire or a mag cannon, and the heads discharged a spray of modified yggdryl sap which basically encased them and whatever they struck in a layer of rock. The release mechanism was in the launcher. So of course using ’em was expensive every time, but when I hooked another ship, they damn well stayed hooked, until I decided they could go again. The wonders of modern alchemy!”

Anjal Punaji was animatedly narrating, standing near an examining table on which were laid out a variety of arcane scrying tools along one side, while Fross flittered about over a bent metal arm that had clearly been taken from a Rust cultist. Ruda, Toby, Gabriel and Juniper were all standing nearby, listening to the pirate queen with varying degrees of interest.

“Told you,” Ruda grunted when her mother paused for breath. “Woman is fuckin’ obsessed with gadgets. You leave this thing in her sight and she’ll be trying to build her own cultist by nightfall.”

“So I’d let them herd me closer to the vortex, see?” Anjal continued, mostly directing herself to Gabriel, who was clearly the most wrapped up in her story. “So we snared her with both harpoons, and then dropped all sail, which basically made the Quarrel an anchor dragging the Sheng warship down with us. They immediately did everything they could to pull away, but with the weight of both ships and the vortex pulling at us, they had no chance. We stayed that way till we were both past the point of no return, then I released the cables and raised sail again.” She grinned savagely. “But my ship was outfitted with Imperial zeppelin thrusters below the water line. It was touchy for a bit there, but we pulled out of the vortex and left the Sheng to drown, and good bloody riddance to ’em.”

“Whoah, hold up,” Gabriel protested. “Zeppelin thrusters? Do those even work underwater?”

“I assure you, they do,” Anjal said with a wink.

“Cos I’m no sailor, but I’m pretty sure those things would shake a wooden ship to pieces.”

“Oh, that they would, which was precisely why mine was the only ship on the sea that had ’em. The Quarrel was a high elven caravel; toughest little girl I ever saw, and the wood healed itself after being damaged. You’re not wrong, she sprouted a dozen leaks after that abuse, but we bailed our asses off for the next day and a half and she gradually put herself right.” Anjal heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Gods, I miss that ship.”

Gabriel was frowning now. “I thought high elves were a myth.”

“Yeah, well, you’re better off. It’s for the best for everybody that they keep to themselves. They were real bloody curious what I was doing with one of their ships in the first place. By far the biggest pain in the ass I ever dealt with, and that’s including having half the Punaji privateers chasing me from Acarnia to Glassiere.”

“What is she doing here?” Teal demanded suddenly, glaring.

“Uh.” Juniper blinked. “She…lives here. This is kinda her house.”

“I don’t think she’s talkin’ about Mama,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh. Right.”

Six other women were gathered on benches against the far wall, watching with wide eyes—including two elves, one of whom Teal recognized.

“Hi there,” Principia said diffidently. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Teal braced her feet, and emitted a low growl—a sound that clearly was not the produce of any human voicebox. Flickers of orange fire sparked across her eyes. All six women pressed themselves backward against the walls.

“Whoah, whoah, easy there, hon,” Ruda said soothingly, rushing to her side and laying a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “Short version is, she’s helping. This is Lieutenant Locke of the Third Silver Legion. They’re expected; after the Fourth got wiped out, High Commander Rouvad sent us some special forces units, much more discreetly. These are the first to arrive.”

“This woman, in the Silver Legions?” Teal said contemptuously. “And you believed that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ruda countered. When Teal turned a glare on her, she shrugged. “Think about it. The one thing we know she wants is access to Trissiny. This crazy bitch was willing to piss off all of us, not to mention the various world powers we’re connected to, plus fucking Tellwyrn, just to get a two-minute conversation with Shiny Boots. Her signing up with the Silver Legions after that is such an obvious next step I’m a little embarrassed it didn’t occur to me at the time. Besides,” she added, turning a wry look on Principia, “I’m no High Commander, but if I was crazy enough to let this walking sack of pickled assholes into my Legions, I’d definitely route her into the special forces. She’d make a shitty-ass soldier under any other circumstances.”

“She really does know you,” Merry said, nudging Prin with an elbow.

Principia sighed and stood up. “Well! Now that everybody’s here that’s coming I can say it: I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Teal snapped.

“Well, I am,” the elf said quietly. “The fact is, I was thinking of nothing but myself. All of you were just things in my way, as far as I cared. I have no excuse. It was unpardonable asshole behavior on my part, and I truly am sorry. That doesn’t change anything, I know, but there it is.”

“That was less than two years ago,” Teal exclaimed. “And now she’s calling herself a Lieutenant? That’s not even believable!”

Suddenly, warm arms were wrapped around Teal from behind, and Juniper pulled her close, resting her chin on Teal’s shoulder.

“She’ll wake up,” the dryad murmured. “She will be fine, Teal. And she wouldn’t want you to be so angry, or so sad.”

“She’s got a story to explain that, too,” Anjal interjected. “And we checked with the local Avenist temple, which has been kept in the loop. This actually is Squad 391, and Locke is who she claims. They’re an interesting bunch, aren’t they?”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Farah said politely.

“Girl, I’m Punaji,” Anjal replied. “There are no Majesties here.”

Principia cleared her throat again. “Well. Now that we’re all assembled, I’ve got something more relevant to the mission to bring up. Unless I’m wrong, which I kind of hope I am, did I hear you refer to the Rust as the Infinite Order a few minutes ago?”

Ruda narrowed her eyes. “Our intelligence says that’s their own name for themselves. What of it?”

Principia ran a hand over her hair, letting out a long sigh. “Oy vey… All right. Have you guys had the chance to eavesdrop on any of their sermons?”

“A couple of times now,” Toby said, nodding. “It’s all mind over matter, self-empowerment humanist stuff.”

“Jibbering nonsense, is what it is,” Casey added disdainfully.

“I wish it was that simple,” Principia replied. “Okay, without going into excessive detail, let me just remind everyone that I was an adventuring thief for two hundred years, back when ‘adventure’ was a respectable career path and not a punchline. I have been places people should not go and seen shit that’s better left forgotten. Such as, specifically, a number of relics of the Elder Gods. Rather…instructive ones.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Gabriel muttered.

“Infinite Order,” Principia said grimly, “was what they called themselves. The name of their organization, like how our gods are the Pantheon. And this stuff the Rust are spouting, this self-empowerment piffle… That was their religion.”

“Okay, hang on a fuckin’ second,” Ruda said, holding up a hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I believe you know this. Why would the Elder Gods need a religion? Wouldn’t they each have their own?”

“They weren’t gods like our Pantheon,” Principia explained. “They had a totally different relationship to their own power, and the people of this world. Our gods are each a god of something; the Elder Gods were just beings of incredible, nearly infinite power. Everything they did was calculated to protect that power, including the religion they preached and enforced. Like, the system of measurements we still use? That was a very old one which was long discredited by the time they arose. They used a system based on tens, each unit derived from some physical constant.”

“Like the dwarves use!” Gabriel said.

“Maybe the same one; it wouldn’t surprise me if the dwarves had dug up Elder God relics themselves. My point is, everything the Infinite Order did was designed to suppress people. They gave our ancestors food that barely nourished them, prohibited things like libraries and museums, insisted on a system of measurements that made any kind of science harder to do and mandated a religion based on nonsense and circular reasoning, all to inhibit people from rising to power the way they had.”

“So,” Toby said slowly, “this unprecedented cult with inexplicable powers…is actually some kind of direct continuation of the Elder Gods themselves.”

Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Oh, fuck, that’s bad.”

“It may not be as bad as that,” Principia cautioned. “The Elder Gods left all kinds of junk. Most of it’s been destroyed or locked away by now, but I suspect there’ll always be bits and bobs left for somebody to stumble across once in a while. Whoever leads the Rust may have just got his hands on some records and/or artifacts.”

“Sounds to me like we’d better be prepared for the worst, though,” Anjal said flatly. “Records and artifacts don’t wipe out Silver Legions.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Fross chimed, finally drifting away from the arm she’d been examining. “I would be more worried about whatever source of knowledge or power the Rust has being able to propagate itself somehow. Cos I’ve triple checked to be sure about this and right now I’m about ninety-five percent certain this hunk of metal is alive.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

13 – 10

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“Athan’Khar?” Tallie exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

“It’s not something I’d joke about,” Schwartz said distractedly, frowning into the distance ahead as he had been since they’d found the others. “And…it’s not as if we went into the country. That’s pretty much suicide. Camping on the border and getting chased away by monsters was close enough, thank you.”

“There’s a great deal more to you than there appears, isn’t there, Herschel?” Layla said, giving him a warm smile. Darius shot her a look through narrowed eyes, then switched it to Schwartz, who didn’t notice. Meesie bounded onto Schwartz’s head and cheeped smugly.

“I think that’s true of everyone,” the witch muttered, still frowning in thought.

Fortune had been with them for once; Layla and Darius were together, in the main floor of the casino, which was quiet at that hour, and both dressed far more fashionably than was their custom these days. When asked about this, he had just glowered and she had looked smug. Ross, too, had been easily accessible, perched on the casino’s front steps playing a flute. It was hard to say what seemed more incongruous: the delicate little instrument in his beefy hands, or the sweet tone and precise notes he produced. Altogether it was easier to gather the group than Jasmine and Tallie had feared—especially so, since they didn’t even need to descend to the depths of the Guild proper, which would have necessitated leaving Schwartz behind.

Things were slowing down, however.

“Hey, man, step lively,” Darius reproved, falling back to nudge Schwartz with an elbow and earning a shrill scolding from Meesie, which he ignored. “We’re on a deadline, remember?”

“Oh, and what deadline is that, Darius?” Layla asked archly.

“The deadline that we don’t know who’s after us or what they can do,” he snapped. “For-fuckin’-give me if I’m a little nervous about this. Even the dwarves were just spies. This time it’s magic people. Real wizards, apparently, not hired enchanters. Plus whatever priests…and we still don’t know how deep this thing goes or into how many cults. Future reference,” he added, turning to address the rest of the group, “I have learned my lesson and am henceforth with Style. From now on, we stay the hell out of interfaith business.”

“Sorry,” Schwartz muttered a little belatedly, lengthening his stride. Meesie hopped from atop his head down to his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. Uncharacteristically, he appeared not to notice her, staring head with his forehead creased.

“Hey.” Suddenly, Ross came to a stop, reaching out to grasp Schwartz by the shoulder and holding him up as well. The others trailed to a halt, staring at Ross in puzzlement; Schwartz blinked, confused, and seemed to take a moment to focus his eyes on the burly apprentice. “You wanna tell us what bothers you so much about this Bishop we’re goin’ to see?”

“Ah.” Schwartz blinked, adjusted his glasses, and swallowed heavily. “Yes, well, um. Let’s, uh, have that discussion someplace a little less, you know…”

They were on a busy sidewalk in the district which housed the Imperial Casino; at this hour not long before noon, the traffic was plentiful. And as per the usual disinterest of city dwellers for other people’s business, what Eserite technique classified as the “don’t see” kind of invisibility, nobody was paying the gathering of somewhat scruffy young people any attention. Meesie garnered a few curious looks, but no one stopped, or even slowed.

“Sorry, didn’t express that right,” Ross grunted. “Wasn’t askin’ you to explain. I’m asking, Schwartz, if you want to tell us about it. Cos if you don’t, that’s also okay.”

Schwartz blinked twice. Meesie stood upright, placed on paw on his cheekbone, and nodded, squeaking insistently.

“I would sort of…rather not, actually,” Schwartz said at last. “It’s not that…”

“Don’t need to explain,” Ross said, nodding, then shifted his head to look at the others. “Kay, so, we’re not doin’ that. What other options we got?”

“Now, wait a second,” Darius exclaimed.

“We don’t have a lot in the way of options,” Tallie agreed, frowning. “Look, Schwartz, I dunno what’s up with you and Syrinx, but we’ve got your back—”

“HEY.” Everyone shut up immediately at Ross’s bark; he had a bard’s lungs and could project at startling volume. All around the street, people paused, turning to look at the group. Ross glanced sidelong at this, frowning in annoyance, then turned and curtly tugged Schwartz toward the nearest alley. The witch followed him, unprotesting, and the others trailed along behind after a moment.

A few yards in, sheltered from the sight of the street, Ross turned, and gently shook Schwartz by the grip he still had on his shoulder—for a given value of gently. The witch nearly lost his balance and Meesie chattered a stern reproof.

“This is our boy Schwartz,” Ross said firmly, glaring at the others. “Smartest guy we know, badass spellcaster, and doesn’t scare easy. We knew that before this Athan’Khar business came up, even. He saved all our butts on that ride outta the city. So when he’s spooked enough by something to be this nervous, that’s all we need to know. Guild or not, you gotta trust your crew.”

Darius frowned. “I don’t think—”

“Oh, you don’t think at all,” Layla scoffed. “Ross is entirely correct, and I for one am embarrassed to have to be reminded of it. Quite frankly, that woman gave me the creeps. Even while she was clearly helping us, on both occasions, something about her makes my hackles rise.”

“Schwartz,” Jasmine said quietly, “I’m not arguing or judging, here, just asking. Are you sure about this?”

“I can’t say how sure I am about anything that might happen,” Schwartz replied with more poise. He met her gaze evenly, though, and nodded. “I can tell you that it’s an informed opinion backed by experience when I say nothing good will result from involving Basra Syrinx. Even if she can help, she’ll use that to tie strings to us. And that is something I promise we’ll all regret.”

Jasmine nodded slowly. “Then…I’m on board with this decision. I haven’t seen what Schwartz apparently has, but even within Avenist circles, I’ve heard warnings about Syrinx.”

“I have no idea what you lot are going on about,” Darius said irritably, then held up a hand when both Tallie and Layla rounded on him. “But! I trust you guys. Ross is right, after all; if you can’t trust your crew, you’re fucked anyway. So, if Syrinx is out as a prospect, what’s that leave us?” He shrugged helplessly, looking around at them. “Cos it’s not like we don’t have friends. The whole reason none of us have got proper sponsors is we have so many ties to upper Guild members it makes people nervous. But that does us no fucking good when we have to wonder if they’re involved in whatever horseshit is going on!”

“The original issue is we can find that out,” said Jasmine, “but it’ll take some time and room to maneuver. We need a secure space from which to operate, at least briefly, and protection by someone who can offer it would be nice.”

“Glory’d be perfect if we could trust her,” Ross added. “Gotta say I can’t see her bein’ in on this.”

“I think likely she is not,” Layla agreed, frowning and chewing her bottom lip in thought. “Rasha certainly wouldn’t be. But Glory hears bits of everything worthwhile happening in the city; don’t forget we got some of our initial tips on this from Rasha, who heard rumors via Glory’s connections. There are so many reasons someone might scheme from within the cults, not all of them bad. If she thought they had the right idea and didn’t yet know they were trying to falsely imprison us…”

“By the same token,” Tallie added dryly, “let me be the first to say I don’t think we should involve Webs in this. And I’m not just saying that because he stares at my chest and Layla’s butt.”

“He what?!” Layla and Darius chorused in matching outrage.

“I’ve noticed that too,” Jasmine said, scowling. “But strategically, I think you’re right. My feeling is with a little information we can clear Glory of involvement in this and be able to ask her for help. I have a very strong feeling, though, that if we go looking into Webs’s doings, we’re likely to find him knee-deep in this business. We know he’s suspicious of Tricks and the Guild’s current leadership. Who better to be involved in a conspiracy to suborn the cults from within?”

“What about that woman with the absurd suit?” Schwartz suggested. “I realize we didn’t part on the best of terms, but the way you describe it, she’s sort of ancillary to the Guild. If you’re worried the Guild is compromised…”

“Ironeye?” Tallie’s eyes widened, and she began waving her hands in front of herself. “Nonononono.”

“Uh, yeah, let’s call that Plan D,” Darius said with a wince. “She didn’t explicitly say our asses were hers if we ever showed ’em in Glass Alley again, but…”

“That was the subtext,” Ross said, nodding. “Wasn’t subtle about it, either.”

“It occurs to me our method of making friends seems to involve making enemies in equal measure.” Jasmine sighed, running a hand over her hair. “Well, that pretty much just leaves…Pick.”

Tallie snorted. “Credit where it’s due, he’s had our back ever since we helped rescue him from the dwarves, but he’s got nothing to offer but small-time stuff. Pick’s not only the biggest asshole I know, he’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed. I don’t see anything worthwhile coming of involving him.”

“There’s Grip,” Darius said.

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, and heaved a heavy sigh.

“Oh!” Tallie turned to Jasmine. “I realize you’ve got a complicated relationship with her, Jas, but let’s not forget Sergeant Locke and her squad. They came through for us once.”

“Uh, no good, I’m afraid,” Schwartz chimed, grimacing. “I got a note from Principia last night to…well, stay out of trouble. She and her squad are out of the city on some classified maneuver or other.”

“They’re trusting Locke with classified operations?” Jasmine exclaimed, her eyebrows shooting upward. The next moment, they fell into a frown. “Wait, why is she worried about you getting into trouble?”

“Syrinx,” he said sullenly.

“Oh. Right.”

“What about you, man?” Darius asked, turning to Schwartz. “I know the Collegium seems to be compromised, but do you have any particular friends in there who you trust?”

“Some,” Schwartz said with a pensive frown, while Meesie chittered softly as if debating possibilities with herself. “Sister Leraine is all the way in Viridill, though… I have worked with Bishop Throale enough that I think he would listen to me, but we aren’t close.”

“Bishops, hm,” Ross grunted. “If we’re sure Syrinx isn’t in on this, maybe that’s a sign our cults’ Bishops could be trusted?”

“I would not assume that based just on rank,” Jasmine said, shaking her head. “Darling and Throale would both be excellent prospects for any kind of conspiracy to recruit, whereas Syrinx is unstable and cruel enough that handling her might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve said before I don’t think High Commander Rouvad has her nearly as much in hand as she believes.”

“In short,” Layla said with open exasperation, “everyone we know either hates us or can’t be trusted in a pinch. I feel this is the sort of revelation which ought to prompt some soul-searching.”

“And would,” Tallie agreed gravely, “if any of us had souls. No offense, Schwartz. Ooh!” She suddenly straightened up, grinning, and pointed at him. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, everything I know about fairy magic I learned from you an hour ago, but the way you were talking about divination… Can you get some answers for us about who can and can’t be trusted?”

“Hm.” He frowned deeply. “Hmmmmm.” Meesie sat upright on her haunches, twisting her head to peer up at him, in silence for once. “Wellll…”

“Is this how divination works?” Darius asked sardonically. “Are you doing it right now?” Layla struck him in the stomach with the back of her fist, which he pretended not to feel.

“The tricky thing is…well, it’s tricky,” he said slowly, folding an arm across his midsection to prop his other elbow on it and stroke his chin in deep thought. Meesie mimicked the pose on his shoulder, squeaking once in agreement. “Fae divination is as much about politics and interpersonal relations as magical technique. It comes through the agency of intelligent spirits, which all have their own personalities and agendas. Some points generally in common, though. They don’t like yes or no questions, as a rule.”

“Sounds like they just enjoy being difficult,” Layla observed, arching an eyebrow.

“That is…not incorrect,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “The more specific you try to be, the more vague the answers will be, as a rule of thumb. Humm…there are possibilities, though, workarounds. Connection is a powerful thing in witchcraft, as are emotional states. If we’re dealing with questions about people to whom we are already linked, and whether they mean us well or ill…” His eyes came back into focus, actually beginning to look a little eager. “You know, I think I might be able to work something up! I won’t promise anything terribly detailed, of course. There is always the risk when trying to maneuver around spirits’ recalcitrance that you will trigger a backlash. Do that the wrong way and a practitioner can seriously damage the relationships they have built with totem spirits and thus permanently impair their craft.”

“Well, let’s not do that,” Darius said. “You’re no good to us de-magicked.”

Layla hit him again.

“And,” he added, scowling at her, “obviously we care whether you get your magic screwed up. I was assuming that went without saying.”

“From Ross, it would,” Jasmine said pleasantly. “You need to clarify.”

“I hate you all.”

“No, ya don’t,” Tallie said, grinning and leaning an elbow on his shoulder.

“I think I can do this, though, yes,” Schwartz said in mounting excitement, ignoring their byplay. “I mean, as I said, I won’t swear to the results, but… Well, for a start, I believe we’re taking it as given that we trust Glory and just need some independent verification? Because if that’s the only level of certainty I have to shoot for… Yes, I’m almost positive I can do that!”

“If you can, that would give us a perfect starting point,” Jasmine said with a broad smile, catching some of his enthusiasm. “Glory is amazingly well-connected in the city, as we were discussing. With her help we may be able to find out everything else we need without having to trouble your spirits.”

“Oh, but…” Schwartz deflated abruptly. “What we’re talking about is not a simple, standard consultation. I could do one of those right here, in this alley, if you guys didn’t mind standing guard for half an hour or so. But this will need some rather more serious preparation… I will need both space and time, which means a spot we can consider safe. And without safe access to my rooms at the Collegium…”

“We’re right back to where we started,” Tallie said. “Well, fuck.”

Darius cleared his throat and raised a hand. “Okay, don’t everybody pile on me for this, but… To revisit an earlier topic, how off the table is Bishop Syrinx? Because she’s a dangerous hardass, she’s the only major player we know isn’t in with this conspiracy, and sure, maybe she’s a vicious asshole, but we’ve just spent the last ten minutes figuring out that describes pretty much everybody we could possibly turn to.”

Meesie began tugging at Schwartz’s earlobe, squeaking insistently. When he turned his head to look at her, she hopped to the very edge of his shoulder, stood up on her tiptoes, and struck a pose folding one tiny arm across her chest while brandishing the other in the air. She raised her head and let out a single long, shrill note.

“You trained your mouse to do opera?” Darius exclaimed, wincing and raising fingertips to his own ears. “Well, that’s the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen that has no conceivable use. Also, please make it stop.”

“Oh!” Schwartz’s expression suddenly brightened, and he reached up to scratch between Meesie’s ears. “That’s right, I do know someone! Someone who can find information for us the slow way and provide a safe place for me to cast!”

“Well, why didn’t you suggest that first?” Tallie asked irritably.

Schwartz winced. “I, uh, didn’t think of it. And also there’s the fact that she is not going to like this. Any part of it.”


The Mermaid’s Tail was as close to “upscale” as establishments on the wharves of Puna Dara came. There was often music, broken furniture was repaired or replaced quickly, the food and drinks were both good, the serving girls were pretty, and the consequences for pawing at them included broken bones and an unplanned swim. The place was never truly quiet; even just before the lunch hour, it was busy enough to be difficult to find a table for six people.

For that reason, Squad 391 had chosen not to stay there after meeting up.

In appearance they had mostly reverted to type rather than attempting an actual disguise, with the possible exceptions of Principia and Nandi. Neither personally favored the traditional elvish attire they now wore, but it served as the best deflectors of attention. Elves were rare in Puna Dara, and had a less savage reputation than in the Imperial provinces, so they were met with less suspicion and hostility, but just as much curiosity; wearing obviously human clothes would have made them more curious to behold, which they preferred to avoid.

Of the others, Casey was in a simple skirt and blouse suitable for her prairie childhood. Ephanie and Merry both wore sturdy boots, trousers and shirts that didn’t look too out of place on the wharves, reflecting in one case a pragmatic Avenist upbringing and in the other both a working-class background and frontier adventurer sensibilities. Farah, meanwhile, was regretting her choice of a stiff, high-collared conservative dress. Such garments much better suited the climate of Tiraas than Puna Dara, as the sweat dampening her temples affirmed.

“Okay, first thing we’ve gotta do is get you into more suitable clothes, Farah,” Principia said, grinning but not without sympathy.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Farah panted, vigorously fanning herself with a Sheng style hand fan for which she had paid far too much from a vendor. “Sorry, Sar—Lieu—Prin. I didn’t think well enough ahead.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Merry said easily. “If any of us had thought far enough ahead, we’d have warned you.”

“Oh, indeed, this one has no business criticizing anybody’s choices in wardrobe,” Principia said merrily.

They were walking along the waterfront between piers; Merry actually stumbled half a step, and shot the elf a warning look. “Locke.”

“You should have seen the costume I first met her in!” Principia continued, grinning from ear to ear. “It was like she’d gone to the most overpriced leatherworker she could find and asked for the most stereotypical adventurer gear they had—”

“Locke, so help me—”

“—but instead of ‘adventurer’ the guy thought she said ‘prostitute,’ so she had to improvise places to keep two dozen unnecessary throwing knives—”

“Bitch, I will not hesitate to shove your ass into the harbor!”

“I’m guessing you’ve never tried to shove an elf anywhere, Tazlith,” Prin retorted, her grin truly insane in proportion now.

“And let’s refrain from the gendered insults, please,” Ephanie said wearily.

Merry rounded on her. “Oy, don’t you start spouting off about regs while we’re out here—”

“Correct, they’re not as applicable while we’re being discreet, and speaking of which keep your voice down,” Ephanie retorted bitingly. “Consider that a personal request. Keep it up and first I’ll lecture you about basic feminist philosophy, which I know you’ve already heard, and then throw you in the harbor.”

“Wait, Tazlith?” Farah said, still fanning herself but now cocking her head quizzically. “As in…arrow? I can see how you’d get that from the elvish glyphs but I was sure it was pronounced ‘tasleef.’”

Merry ground the heels of both her hands into her eye sockets. “AAAUUGH!”

“Yeah, that’s a great way to avoid notice,” Casey muttered.

“Take it easy,” Principia said lightly. “I’m watching and listening, as is Nandi. Nobody’s paying us any mind.”

The area was, indeed, busy to the point of boisterousness. Puna Dara being a major port city, the amount of activity that went on around the docks near midday bordered on deafening. Even Merry’s outburst hadn’t garnered them so much as a glance; there was no shortage of shouting resounding from all sides, most of it a lot more meaningful. The group passed in front of a long warehouse which seemed to be built partially over the harbor, briefly cutting off their view of the sea.

“Speaking of which, to business,” Nandi said softly enough that the non-elves had to cluster closer to her to hear. The group’s pace slowed somewhat. “We haven’t been idle while waiting for you, but we have learned little, I’m afraid.”

“First and most important, I think, is that there are limits to what they can watch, or at least watch for,” Principia agreed, nodding. “You four made it here unimpeded. They aren’t omniscient. None of the other Legion groups have made it here yet; we’ve checked at the temple of Avei. They’re expecting the group of healers tomorrow, and that will be the next test of the Rust’s capabilities and inclinations. We know they can hit an entire Silver Legion; the question is whether they’ll find a contingent of Avenist medical staff a threat.”

“A grim thing to contemplate,” Ephanie said gravely.

Principia nodded. “As for the other cults… Local gossip places two Huntsmen in the Rock. That’s the fortress there in the harbor which houses the Punaji government; apparently they’re guests of Blackbeard himself.”

“Two?” Merry said disdainfully. “That’s helpful.”

“It is helpful,” Ephanie replied. “Two is not nothing, and Huntsmen are not Legionnaires. Without the backing of a lodge master or official like Bishop Varanus, it can be difficult to mobilize them, especially into a city.”

“Haven’t had time to check up on the other cults yet,” Principia went on quietly. “There’s a Vidian temple, of course, and an Omnist one, but…well, those are Vidians and Omnists. There’s a limit to how useful they’re likely to be. No word from any delegations from other faiths; it’s going to be interesting trying to track them down if they’re all trickling in from various directions the way we did.”

“What about the local Thieves’ Guild?” Casey asked. “If anything, I’d think Eserites would be the most helpful.”

“That was going to be my next stop after we linked up with you lot,” Principia agreed. “They’ll be instrumental in keeping us in touch with the word on the street. But…let me just moderate your expectations before they soar too high. The Guild in Puna Dara is… Well, to be quite frank, it’s basically the Eserite rest home.”

“What?” Merry exclaimed after a baffled pause.

Principia sighed. “Eserites are pretty much redundant in Punaji cities; the whole culture here shares their values.”

“I would think that’d make them more likely to set up shop,” Merry muttered.

“For other cults, maybe, but not the way Eserites think,” Casey replied. “They like to slink around in shadows and challenge corrupt centers of power. In a whole society that believes the way they do, the first part of that is unnecessary and the second part would have a hard time taking hold.”

“Exactly.” Principia glanced back at her and nodded. “So basically, the Guild here is half a dozen retirees who find the local climate good for their bones, and a couple of apprentices, mostly their kids and grandkids, who can’t wait for an opportunity to bugger off to someplace like Tiraas or Shengdu.”

“Fuck a duck,” Merry muttered.

“It’s not so bad,” Principia said cheerfully. “Without—”

She came to an abrupt stop, prompting the rest of the group to do likewise; a young Punaji woman in a broad-brimmed hat with a lot more feathers than seemed usual had suddenly whipped around the corner ahead to block their path, one hand resting suggestively on the bejeweled hilt of the rapier which hung at her belt. The girl, who was a head shorter than any of them, tilted her head back to study Principia’s face closely.

“Yuuuuup,” she drawled, “thought so. I like the hair. Blonde looks better on you.”

“Excuse me,” Principia said politely, “I think you may have me mistaken for someone else.”

“Ah, yes, of course, right.” The girl grinned. “Because elves all look alike and humans have such poor eyesight. Fross, identity confirmed.”

“Okay!” A silver streak of light zipped out from behind the warehouse, pausing right in front of them. “Hi! Sorry about this!”

“Wh—”

That was as far as Prin got before a blast of gale force wind sent the rest of the squad bowling over and a wall of sheer kinetic energy slammed her against the front of the warehouse. Four lightning-swift bursts of magic from the pixie encased her hands and feet, neatly pinning her against the brickwork.

The wind had been almost surgically precise; the human girl hadn’t lost a single feather from her hat. She now lazily dragged her rapier from its sheath and pressed the tip against Principia’s throat.

“So! If it isn’t the great Principia Locke. What the fuck are you doin’ in my city, you smirking little ferret?”

“STAND DOWN!” Prin roared. “No weapons! Don’t even think about it!”

“I beg your goddamn fucking pardon?” the Punaji girl said dangerously, pressing slightly with the sword. “According to what twisty-ass logic do you think you’re in a position to make demands?”

“Sorry,” Principia said earnestly, putting on a pleasant smile. “Wasn’t talking to you.”

Slowly, she turned to study the rest of the squad, all of whom were now on their feet and brandishing the long knives—and in Merry’s case, a cudgel—which they’d hidden among their clothes, visibly preparing to charge. At Principia’s order, they’d all stopped, but were glaring at the woman and her pixie companion. With the exception of Nandi, who wore a tiny smile.

Another figure strolled around the corner, this one in a green corduroy coat, and with a black-hilted elvish saber hanging from his belt. He stopped and surveyed the scene with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, Ruda, it’s your town and all, but unless you know something I don’t, these ladies don’t look awfully Rusty. There a particular reason we’re picking a fight with them?”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted, lowering her sword slightly. “No, I don’t actually suspect this one or her friends of being in with the Rust. But I don’t like coincidences with all this shit going on, and the sudden appearance of walking trouble this big makes me take notice. Bare minimum, we’re looking at a headache we do not fucking need. This is, as I just said, Principia fucking Locke, the elf with a penchant for breaking into dormitories and drugging our classmates.”

“Oh,” the young man said, turning an interested look on the imprisoned elf. “This is Trissiny’s mom?”

“Wait, you did what?” Farah exclaimed.

“D-did he just say Trissiny’s mom?” Merry screeched, at least an octave above her normal speaking register.

Principia heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, all righty, then, I guess I owe a few explanations. Would you mind awfully letting me down from here? My fingers are numb.”

Ruda grinned unpleasantly and tapped her lightly on the tip of her nose with the rapier’s point. “That, cupcake, depends on how good you explain. And how fast.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

13 – 8

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“Oh, come on!”

Schwartz threw up his hands in disgust and stomped over to his desk. Behind him, acrid smoke wafted from the charred spell circle inscribed on the center of the floor in his tower room. Even the chalk lines had burned in places; the reagents deposited at specific points around the diagram were a total loss.

He flipped open the grimoire from which he was working, hands moving more angrily than he normally handled books, but still with care for the pages, and held it up to his face as if proximity would reveal hidden meanings previously missed.

“Yes…yes…no…obviously… Yes, I did that. Double-checked the… Uh huh. It’s all right!” He snapped the book shut and made to slam it back down on the desk, but caught himself at the last moment and laid it down more respectfully. “Why isn’t it working?”

The last was directed at Meesie, who had been chittering for the last few minutes; now, finally having his attention, she began hopping up and down, waving her tiny arms. Schwartz frowned. “What is it?”

She hopped in place once more, then scampered deftly up the bookcase adjacent to the desk and then across its top, finally leaping onto the narrow lintel above the door. The little elemental paused atop this, sitting precariously upright despite only having an inch of space, and placed one of her little hands upon the warding charm he had hung over the door. She bobbed her head twice, squeaking insistently.

“Hm.” Schwartz narrowed his eyes. “Hm. I suppose… You may be onto something there, Meesie. An arcane spell signature would interfere with elemental conjuration, it’s known to do that. But no, that doesn’t make any sense.” He turned and began pacing back and forth in front of the ruined circle, frowning and rubbing his chin in thought. “This is the Emerald flipping College, everything is warded to block loose arcane energy. It’s probably the most arcane-free place in the whole city. Can’t even get the fairy lamps to work…” He glanced at the light-globe handing from the center of the ceiling, which ironically was more technically a fairy lamp than the arcane devices which bore the name, being filled with tiny dancing light elementals. “Besides, if there were an arcane presence here I’d have sensed it, especially when I was trying to perform the craft.”

He trailed off, and came to a stop, eyes widening slowly. “Unless…”

Meesie gesticulated at him with both hands, squeaking in exasperation.

“Unless there was a highly focused spell targeting this room in particular,” Schwartz said, turning to face her, “carefully designed to penetrate wards and evade detection. What do you think are the chances?”

Meesie stood upright and pantomimed stabbing with a sword, then stuck out her tongue and blew a very tiny raspberry.

“Syrinx.” Schwartz nodded, his expression grim. “She’s done it before, to Prin’s squad. Who have just left the city, so if she’s chosen now to start chasing after me again… Good work, Meesie, well spotted. C’mon, let’s get this cleaned up.”

He held out a hand and the little fire-rat launched herself from the door frame, landing on his arm and scampering up to his shoulder.

“Time for an altogether different sort of spell,” Schwartz said flatly. “Afraid our experiment will have to wait, partner. I believe I have just the thing for someone who thinks they can scry on a witch of the Emerald College.”


“Come on, I’ve got money riding on this shot!”

Jasmine stopped in the process of lining up her cue, straightened, and turned a flat stare on Tallie. “I could swear I heard someone point out to you that I’m new at this game and you specifically should not bet on it. Who was it? I know it was somebody…”

“Hey, are you gonna shoot, or are you gonna jabber?” her partner asked, leaning on his cue and grinning. Jasmine sighed, shook her head, and bent over the table again, carefully aiming her shot.

The pool hall was very quiet at this hour of the morning, with no customers present except for Jasmine, Tallie, and the two young men who had sauntered in and engaged them in a game, to Tallie’s apparent delight and Jasmine’s annoyance. Even the barkeep was asleep in the corner behind his counter. And yet, somehow, there was still a faint haze of smoke hanging near the ceiling. Between that and the heavily shaded windows, it could have been midnight for all those inside could tell.

“Here, I think I see where you’re having trouble,” Jasmine’s opponent said solicitously, stepping around to her side of the table. “Let me show you…”

“No, thank you,” she said without looking up.

“Oh, you don’t wanna do that, my man,” Tallie advised with a big grin while he moved in beside her and reached to lay his hand on hers on the cue.

“It’s okay,” he assured her, bending his body over hers. “Common beginner’s mistake. What you wanna—”

He didn’t even have time to grunt as Jasmine smoothly ducked out from under him and in the same motion swept the cue against the back of his knees. He hit the floor, legs shooting under the table, and only let out a curse when his skull bonked against the floorboards.

“Please refrain from touching me,” she said curtly, and bent over the table again.

His friend, sitting next to Tallie by the bar, laughed so hard he nearly slumped off the stool; Tallie just grinned. “Now, that’s what I shoulda placed a bet on!”

“What?” he chortled, wiping his eyes. “That Sharam would make a move, or that she’d knock him on his ass?”

“The second one. I hope your buddy gets the message the first time; I’ve seen Jasmine knock down Thieves’ Guild enforcers, Silver Legionnaires, and dwarves.”

“Damn! Now that sounds like a story!”

“It’s several stories. Long ones, too. Maybe I’ll tell you later, if we meet up again.”

Jasmine finally took her shot; the cueball grazed three other balls in passing, all of which rolled a short distance and stopped. She sighed and backed away from the table, frowning.

“Looks like I’m set up to win this one,” the other man said to Tallie as Sharam stepped back to the table, now silent and looking disgruntled.

“Eh.” She waved a hand. “Girl wasn’t wrong, I never had much chance on that wager. It’s all for the fun; that’s why I don’t bet more than pocket change.”

He grinned and leaned closer, watching Sharam silently sink his second ball in a row. Off to the side, Jasmine studied her opponent’s moves through narrowed eyes. “So, I can tell how come I’ve never seen her in here before, but you seem more comfortable in a place like this. Why haven’t we met before now? You two new in town, or just in the neighborhood?”

“Neither,” she said with amusement. “Long story, like I said.”

“Well, we’ve got time,” he murmured, shifting to lay his arm along the bar behind her. “It’s gonna take Sharam a while to finish trouncing your friend, there. How ’bout—”

“Whoah, boy.” Tallie leaned away and gave him a look. “Hold your horses, and keep your hands to yourself. Nobody here but you is that fast.”

He opened his mouth to issue a no doubt charming rebuttal, then caught Jasmine’s eye. A second later he processed that she was staring directly at him, now, her pool cue balanced lightly in both hands. Moving carefully as if to avoid startling a skittish animal, he shifted in the other direction on his stool, sliding the offending arm back into his own space. “Fair enough, my apologies, pretty lady. A girl as good-looking and charming as you always makes me lose my head a little bit. Don’t be shy about saying so if I overstep; last thing I want is to make you all uncomfortable so soon after we’ve met.”

“You really don’t have to worry about that,” she said dryly.

“That’s good to hear! I hate girls who can never say what they really—”

“FUCK!”

Sharam backed away from the table and slammed the butt of his cue against the floor, everyone now staring at him. “Fucking piece of shit…”

“Hey, man, relax,” his friend suggested. “You missed a shot. It happens. It’s just a game.”

“Shut it, Kaspar,” Sharam snarled. “She tilted the table when she blindsided me!”

“You did pretty well for quite a few shots, considering that,” Jasmine pointed out mildly. Sharam rounded on her; she raised an eyebrow, and he hesitated. Tallie’s earlier remarks had been well within his earshot.

“Sharam,” Kaspar said firmly, leaning forward. “You are acting like a great big toddler. In front of two pretty girls we just met. Come on, man, it’s too early for this. Let her take her turn.”

Sharam snorted and flounced away a few feet, where he leaned against the nearest table and folded his arms, visibly sulking.

“Wow,” Tallie murmured in a tone low enough not to be audible to him. “Prince Charming.”

“Sharam’s a good guy,” Kaspar said easily. “Just doesn’t like losing. Nobody’s perfect.”

Jasmine leaned over the table, lining up her cue, then paused. For a long moment, she just stood there, apparently lost in thought.

“Today?” Sharam suggested in a snide tone. Kaspar sighed.

Jasmine straightened up, frowning, and shifted. This time, she crouched instead of leaning, bringing herself closer to the level of the table, and moved the cue into position again. She shifted it back and forward a couple of times, then stopped and changed her grip, holding it far closer to the base with her dominant hand.

“The objective is to hit the ball with the stick,” Tallie said helpfully. “Remember? We went over that before the boys came in.”

Eyes narrowed, Jasmine changed her grip again, experimentally waggling the cue and holding it closer to the front now.

“Oh, my gods,” Sharam groaned. “Will you just shoot already? We all know how it’s gonna end, anyway.”

She ignored all the byplay. Jasmine straightened up again, her head turning as she clearly took stock of the whole table and the positions of every ball. Then she crouched again, moved her cue back into position…and began fiddling with the position of her left hand directing its tip.

Sharam tossed his cue onto the table behind him; the clatter was sharp in the quiet morning. Jasmine didn’t flinch, though Tallie winced. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m gonna go take a leak. Somebody yell for me when this is—”

This time he jumped at the sudden, sharp clack of the cue ball striking another, which shot straight into a side pocket.

Tallie and Kaspar both straightened up. “Whoah,” she muttered. “Where’d that come from?”

Sharam also stood, now frowning deeply at his opponent.

“Mmm,” she mumbled, clearly to herself. “But you have to bank them off the walls… Hmm. I think it’s like…”

Jasmine circled around the table, lining up another shot in her unconventional position.

“There is no way,” Sharam began, and then she had banked the cue ball once into a cluster of other balls, one of which sailed right into a corner pocket; another drifted easily close to a side pocket, and she moved again.

“Hmm hm hm, no…not like a spear, like a sword.”

“The fuck are you babbling about?” Sharam demanded.

Jasmine didn’t acknowledge him, but shifted her grip a few inches forward on the cue. This time, she didn’t line up her shot at all, but dropped into a smooth and sudden crouch, jabbing sharply, and immediately sinking the ball she’d nearly made on the last shot.

“Too abrupt…” She shook her head, eyes narrowed in concentration, and paced a complete circle around the table, studying.

Tallie and Kaspar were both leaning forward now, elbows on knees, watching closely.

“I thought you said she was new at this,” he murmured.

“She said she was,” Tallie replied. “I’m still lost how she’s sinking balls holding her cue that wrong…”

They all watched, equally mystified and Sharam increasingly furious, while Jasmine continued systematically putting the remaining balls into pockets. As the last few went down, her expression shifted from a frown of concentration to an increasingly satisfied grin. With the final deposit of the 8 ball into a corner pocket, she straightened up so fast she actually bounced, beaming. “Hey, I think I get this game!”

That did not improve her opponent’s mood.

“That’s—you fucking—you played me!” he spat, clenching his cue in both hands.

“Okay, whoah.” Kaspar stood up. “Take it easy, Sharam, it’s just a game.”

“Oh, let him,” Tallie said lazily. “She’ll be fine.”

“I’m not worried about her,” he muttered.

Unfortunately, Sharam heard that too. “You shut the fuck up!” he bellowed at his friend. Behind them, the bartender let out a disgruntled mutter, but incredibly did not wake up. “You fucking bitch, you played me!”

Jasmine watched him without visible alarm, idly turning her cue over in her hands. “We played each other. I thought that’s what we were doing. I didn’t want to, if you’ll all recall.”

“This is a hustle!” He stepped aggressively closer, baring his teeth. “You set me up!”

“You kinda did, lady,” Kaspar pointed out. “It’s pretty obvious. But Sharam, seriously. This isn’t worth getting into a fight over.”

“Fuck that, I’m not paying up,” Sharam raged. “You try to touch my coin, I’ll bust that pretty face!”

Tallie winced.

“The worst thing I ever did,” Jasmine said quietly, “was take a weapon to a silly boy who yelled in my face the way you’re doing now. I’ve regretted that ever since. That is the only reason you’re not already bleeding on the floor.”

He actually bellowed like an animal and rushed at her with a fist, seeming to forget he was holding a pool cue in his other hand.

Jasmine slipped to one side as deftly as a breeze, and thunked the heavy end of her cue against the back of his head almost as an afterthought. Sharam went down, and stayed down.

“In hindsight,” she said, “I’m glad I didn’t know how to manipulate dumb boys back then.”

“Hey,” grumbled the bartender, blinking blearily at them. “Fuck are you kids doin’? No fightin’. Take it outside.”

“I, uh…” Kaspar swallowed, edging away from Tallie. “I think we’re all done, here.”


“I thought you said you’d never played pool before,” Tallie said accusingly some minutes later, as they hastened up the street back toward the Imperial Casino. The surrounding district was carefully managed to suit the Guild’s needs; its main avenues contained shops which catered to the Casino’s well-heeled clientele, while threaded throughout the back alleys—sometimes within the same buildings—were a much seedier class of establishments, such as the billiard hall.

“I haven’t,” Jasmine said, her expression again thoughtful. She drew in a breath and let it out, causing a puff of mist in the morning cold. “I’m not sure I was doing it right, but really, it’s all forces and angles, isn’t it? I know quite a bit about that; I’ve been training in it since I could walk. Just had to frame it the right way in my mind to work with those skills.”

“I think you’re lucky you can kick everybody’s ass, if you’re gonna run around doing stuff like that,” Tallie said, grinning. “General tip, people who hand out in pool halls don’t appreciate surprises of that nature.”

“Hm. You know, we could do this.”

“Jas, babe, we’ve done it. It’s done. It was nice of you to let the boys keep their money for a healing potion, but seriously, you won. Maybe ‘fair and square’ is overstating it, but…”

“No, no.” Jasmine took her hands out of her coat pockets to gesticulate, her face becoming more animated. “I mean, we could do it! Again, repeatedly! It’s like a con, don’t you see? I’m positive I could pretend to do it badly again, that part can’t be hard. We get people to bet, thinking they’re taking money from a bad player, and then I beat them!” She actually laughed. “Now that I’ve thought of it, it’s so simple! I wonder if anybody’s tried this before? Anyway, at least Style can’t get on me for being sheltered, if I can actually come up with a good grift.”

She came to a stop, realizing Tallie had already done so. The other apprentice was standing a few feet back, staring incredulously at her.

Jasmine frowned. “What?”

“Yoo hoo! Hey, girls!”

“Oh, hey, Schwartz,” Tallie said, turning and waving. Schwartz came panting up to them, slightly out of breath. “What’s up? You look like you’ve been running. Were you looking for us?”

“Yeah,” he wheezed, leaning against a convenient lamp post. “Sorry, gimme a sec… Yes, had to backtrack a bit. I had a spirit guide showing me toward you, but that’s a class of divinatory magic and the fae branches are notoriously imprecise…which, ah, is neither here nor there. Are you two all right? You’re alone?”

“We’re just peachy,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Our very own Jasmine has just invented pool hustling. Why, what’d you need us for in such a hurry?”

“This wouldn’t have to do with that business at the temple the other day, would it?” Jasmine asked in a more sober tone. “Oh! Hi, Meesie.”

The elemental had leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder onto hers, and squeaked delightedly, standing up and patting Jasmine’s cheek.

“Uh, sorry about that,” Schwartz said. “She really likes you! She’s not usually that friendly with…well, regardless…”

“It’s all right, she helps against the cold.” She lightly scratched the top of Meesie’s head with a fingertip, causing the elemental to cheep ecstatically.

“Okay, I want one of those,” Tallie announced.

“Anyhow, yeah, it’s not a strictly social visit,” Schwartz said more seriously, standing up straight and smoothing his hair, which was windblown after his run. “We had a bit of an incident earlier this morning in my room. I was trying to—um, never mind, that’s a long story. The point is, my fae casting was being disrupted, and I eventually figured out it was due to an arcane scrying spell focused on my chamber.”

Meesie ducked out from under Jasmine’s hand and stood upright, squeaking indignantly.

“Ah, yes,” Schwartz amended. “Meesie helped.”

His familiar squealed loudly, pointing at him.

“In fact,” he said, grinning ruefully, “it was her idea. There, satisfied?”

She cheeped and folded her arms.

“Someone was scrying on you?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Shit, that’s creepy. Last time anybody scryed on us it was some bad fucking news.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “My first thought was Bishop Syrinx, of course.”

The two apprentices exchanged a glance.

“Why of course?” Tallie asked.

Schwartz scowled, his shoulders shifting as he drew in a deep breath. “We have a history, let’s leave it at that. When I find somebody being invasive or hostile toward me with unknown intent, I have good reason to immediately think of Syrinx.” Meesie gathered herself up, and then leaped back to his shoulder, where she snuggled against his neck. He reached up to pat her absently.

“She’s a piece of work, all right,” Jasmine said in an oddly inscrutable tone. “Syrinx has a reputation even beyond the Sisterhood.”

“I never heard of her before all that fuckery with the dwarves,” Tallie protested. “What reputation?”

“Avenists don’t generally enjoy bureaucracy, or appreciate the Church getting into the Sisterhood’s business,” Jasmine said. “The post of Bishop tends to go to someone likely to be…well, not exactly wanted around in the Temple. Syrinx has the temperament of a shark, so she’s useful in a political post for the very same reasons she can be dangerous to be around. High Commander Rouvad believes she has her on a tight leash. I…am less certain of that.”

“So am I,” Schwartz agreed, now studying her thoughtfully. He abruptly blinked as if remembering what he was supposed to be doing. “Oh, um, but I was explaining… Well, anywho, I investigated before rushing off to do anything. First of all, understand that I live in the Emerald College, and I’m a practicing witch, so anybody managing to scry on my room is serious business; they have to penetrate all kinds of layers of defenses to get at me, and then evade my own detection. But yes, it was a scrying spell, I found that out in the course of flooding the space with fae energy and shattering it. That may’ve caused some very uncomfortable feedback for the perpetrator.” He paused, looking smug, and cleared his throat. “But anyway. Before I went charging off after Bishop Syrinx, obviously, I did some divinations of my own to figure out what was going on. And…it’s not her. What I found out is that it does indeed have to do with you guys and what I just helped you with.”

“Can you, uh, be a little more specific?” Tallie prompted.

“I really, really can’t,” he said with a rueful grimace. Meesie nodded and shot a scolding chitter at Tallie. “Oracular divination of the kind accessible through fae spirits doesn’t work like arcane scrying. It doesn’t give precise, tactical information; it’s more like interpreting poetry. You know, how prophecies are always phrased vaguely enough to cause trouble in the old bards’ stories? It’s like that.”

“That sounds like a huge pain in the ass,” Tallie grunted.

“Kinda.” Schwartz shrugged. “What it is good for is emotional stuff. Intent, threat…things like that. You can get a general view of who is or is not out to get you, how hostile they are, maybe even why they’re after you to a lesser extent, but not how close they are or what weapons they’ve got. So…that is what I could get. Basra Syrinx, while she feels about me pretty much the way I do about her, isn’t interested or involved right now. I couldn’t get any kind of bead on whoever was doing high-level scrying spells at my room, but the spirits I consulted pointed me in your direction.”

“Creepy,” Tallie muttered.

“It’s…actually funny you mention the Bishop, Schwartz,” Jasmine said slowly.

His expression hardened. “Why? What now?”

“We have been having additional trouble from that,” Tallie explained. “And apparently we pissed off somebody corrupt within the Sisterhood. A priestess and a few legionnaires came after us, tried to throw both of us and Layla in jail for questioning on false charges. Syrinx showed up, ripped her a new one, and got us out.”

“She seemed to already have some kind of grudge against Sister Falaridjad,” Jasmine added, “and it looked good and mutual.”

Schwartz straightened bolt upright, accidentally emphasizing how tall he was without his slight customary slouch. “Did you say Falaridjad?” Meesie squealed, puffing up in alarm.

Jasmine and Tallie glanced uncertainly at each other again.

“Yes,” Jasmine said slowly after a pause. “Ildrin Falaridjad. I made a point of remembering the name; there aren’t so many corrupt priestesses in the Sisterhood that one is worth ignoring. Don’t tell me you know her, too.”

“Ohhhh, boy,” Schwartz whispered, dragging a hand slowly down his face. “I think we may be in real trouble.”

“Uh huh, sounds like we’re definitely gonna want to hear some of this long story,” Tallie said firmly.

“Uh, yeah, I pretty much agree,” he said, breaking off when she held up a finger in his face.

“I’ve just had another thought,” Tallie stated. “If we know there’s crooked elements in the Sisterhood of Avei, and them and the Collegium of Salyrene were the two cults we pissed off doing this, and Schwartz just got pinged by some mage who’s either really powerful or just knows enough about the College to get through its magic defenses…”

“Oh, that is not good,” Jasmine whispered.

“Crap,” Schwartz said feelingly. Meesie huddled herself behind his ear. “I…had that thought myself, actually. It’s why I came to check on you guys rather than going right to my superiors to report a breach in the wards, which I sort of should have…”

“I think we’d better find the others,” Jasmine said. “Quickly.”

“Right, right,” he agreed absently. “They should be here when I explain…”

“Yes, that,” she said with mounting impatience, “but if scryers are hunting our group…”

“Oh, crap,” Tallie yelped. “Come on, we gotta move!”

“Where are we going?” he demanded, trailing along after as they set off toward the Casino at a pace just short of a jog.

“Find our friends,” Jasmine said tersely. “Report this to the Guild. And get a secure place for you to lay out for us what’s happening.”

“Hang on, now,” Tallie protested. “We know at least two cults are corrupted. How much can we trust the Guild? All systems, remember.”

Jasmine came to a stop, her eyes widening. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”

“Yeah, so, as far as safe meeting places go,” Tallie said, “we’re gonna need some outside help. Somebody capable and not involved with this.”

“We’ve got friends. Glory…”

“I said not involved with this. Glory is one of the best people there is, yeah, but we don’t know yet who’s into this and who’s not, and if there’s one thing Glory is, it’s connected.” Tallie chewed her lip in consternation. “I bet we can find out, but not till we’ve done some investigating, and that means getting a place to start and some help. In fact the only person we know is aligned against these crooked cultists…”

“…is Basra Syrinx,” Schwartz finished, his face going ashen. “Fucking hell.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

11 – 40

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

11 – 39

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

The carriage attempting to flank them on the left suddenly skidded, veering back and forth as its driver fought for control. There had been no sign of magic used that was visible from within the passenger compartment of Glory’s vehicle, but Schwartz had told them that with so much snow already in the air, manipulating ice to deprive their pursuers of traction would be one of the easiest spells available to him. He was probably responsible for the sliding of that carriage, since he apparently did nothing to prevent the other one from pulling up almost even with them.

Rasha had snatched up one of the wands Glory had distributed and now pushed open the window, stuck it out and fired.

The lightning bolt flew wide, sparking against a tree trunk in passing, but the pursuers fell back slightly, rather than try their luck against random wandshots. The Eserites didn’t have a better angle of fire without opening the doors to lean out, the rear window being fully attached to the frame. Rasha jerked back in, leaving the window opening and ignoring both the snowflakes and icy wind which blew in and Layla’s shriek of protest at them.

“Here,” Glory said in the momentary lull, tugging a piece of the seat beside her. A section of it slid partly forward, exposing a hidden compartment, into which she reached to pull out a gold-hilted Avenic short sword in a glossy leather sheath. She handed this to Jasmine. “Best to be prepared.”

“What in the world is she going to do with that?” Layla screeched. “Has everyone forgotten what century it is?”

“Not much use right now,” Jasmine allowed, “but the plan is to engage them on foot at the end of this.”

“She can do more damage with that blade than you can with a wand,” Glory added.

“Hold on!” Rasha shouted.

The carriage at which he’d fired approached again, this time almost directly from behind, cutting off the view of the truck bringing up the rear; the angle kept it out of the way of wandfire from their windows. All four of them looked back at Rasha’s shout, then braced themselves barely in time to keep their seats as the pursuing vehicle slammed into their back right fender.

The carriage rocked, but Smythe kept it on course, quickly adjusting out of the resulting skid and then accelerating until they were very nearly tailgating Vandro’s carriage up ahead. The dwarves’ vehicle did not fare so well from its attack; it swerved and barely kept from sliding off into the trees, forced to drastically reduce speed to regain control and compelling its own allies to quickly maneuver out of the way. It had lost one front lamp in the impact.

“Falconer traction charms really do beat Dawnco,” Jasmine muttered, still gripping the bench. “I know someone who’ll be smug…”

In the meantime, the carriage first deflected by Schwartz had recovered its traction and was coming up again; Rasha and Glory both shifted to the opposite side, ready to lean out the windows with wands. The window next to the driver’s seat on the oncoming carriage opened as well, and a bearded dwarf leaned partially out, aiming a wand of his own at them.

“Get down!” Jasmine shouted.

Before they could, however, a tiny streak of red struck the dwarf directly in the beard, and while he flailed, bounced into the driver’s compartment of his vehicle.

An instant later, the compartment was literally full of a huge, glowing cat.

Meesie’s roar was audible to them even over the road noise; her sheer bulk popped open both doors on the vehicle’s driver bench. The driver kept his seat, barely, though his passenger was flung out into the road, and immediately run over by the pursuing truck, which rocked alarmingly but did not capsize or lose significant traction. Meanwhile, the carriage with Meesie in it now lit up a fierce gold as multiple occupants channeled huge amount of divine magic. It had the desired effect; the elemental vanished with a bellowing yowl of protest, but that was an empty victory. The carriage itself veered entirely off the road even as she disappeared, spinning about ninety degrees and toppling over on its side, where it continued to skid on the snow until its front fender smashed against a tree.

“One down,” Glory said with grim satisfaction.

“Oh, no.” Layla pressed both hands to her mouth; in the brief time between Schwartz’s arrival at the townhouse and their departure, she had been immensely taken with the tiny elemental. “Oh, poor Meesie.”

“She’s fine,” said Jasmine. “According to Schwartz, if damaged enough to disappear she’ll just come back to—look out!”

The other carriage had pulled forward again; this time, one of its passenger doors swung wide open, and out leaned a dwarf clearly being held by another inside the compartment, considering he had both hands occupied aiming a battlestaff at them.

All four hurled themselves to the floor as lightning flashed past outside.

More bursts of white light flickered through their windows, accompanied by the crack of thunderbolts and the deeper retorts of trees being struck by the discharges, but nothing hit their carriage. After a few more seconds of this, Jasmine warily crawled up onto the back seat to peak out the window.

“He’s missing,” she reported.

“Well, obviously,” Layla said scathingly. “Why is he missing? Did they designate their only blind confederate as the trigger man?”

“The lightning bolts are being diverted away!” Jasmine replied, grinning.

“Bless that witch,” Glory said fervently, lifting herself back into the seat and retrieving her wand, which she had dropped in her lunge to the floor.

“Yeah,” Rasha agreed, peeking warily out beside Jasmine. “The question is, how long can he keep that up?”

Suddenly their carriage shook under the thump of something impacting the roof, and swerved momentarily before Smythe got it back under control.

“And what the blazes was that?” Layla cried.


Perched precariously atop Vandro’s speeding carriage with one hand clutching the edge of the roof and the other holding to her staff, Tallie watched the confrontation behind them with a lot more worry for her friends in the line if fire than her own very immediate prospects of falling to a particularly ugly demise. Heights and unstable footing were downright comfortingly familiar to her. Granted, speeding down a dark highway in a snowstorm was new, but hey, you had to shake up the act now and again or the punters got bored.

She grinned savagely as the first pursuing carriage went down. In the next moment, though, she reflexively ducked, nearly losing her footing, as lightning began to flash around to the side. It kept shooting off to the left of Glory’s carriage, and it took only a moment’s study for her to understand what must be happening. She could see Schwartz, silhouetted in the glare of the truck’s powerful lights, standing upright somehow despite the snow, wind, and motion of the carriage. He was also holding one hand forward toward their pursuers.

Tallie didn’t know a thing about witchcraft, but she knew how exhausting anything that demanded concentration and physical stamina could get. And she knew what would happen when Schwartz’s energy flagged. How far were they from the point Glory had suggested?

The gap between their vehicles had narrowed when Smythe pressed forward to gain room, but now Wilberforce began to accelerate, pushing Vandro’s carriage to a truly dangerous speed in order to create space between them again. The gap began widening, and Tallie came to an abrupt decision.

She didn’t bother trying to get a running start; she could never have kept her balance doing that under these conditions. Instead she slid her body forward, planted one foot against the rear edge of the roof, and kicked off as powerfully as she could without sacrificing her footing.

The moment of arcing through the snowy air above the highway was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating of her life.

She had misjudged the jump slightly—forgivable, under the circumstances—and slipped upon landing, coming down on her knees instead of her feet. The pain was sharp and bright, and Tallie ignored it completely, being fully occupied with losing neither her staff nor herself over the side. Throwing her body flat, she managed to grasp one edge of the carriage’s roof, dig one toe in against the ornate molding lining it (bless Glory’s extravagant tastes), and stop her horrifying slide over the edge. For a moment she clung there, one foot hanging over the windscreen probably right in front of Smythe, before rallying and pulling herself back up to kneel. This position put more pressure on her already-traumatized knees, which she continued to ignore.

Tallie looked up in time to spot Schwartz glancing back at her; he quickly returned his attention to their pursuit, but at least that mean she could speak to him without accidentally frightening him off the roof. He struck her as being of a generally nervous disposition—or at least, had before she saw this performance.

“I thought you couldn’t use an energy shield on an enchanted carriage!” she shouted over the wind.

“Arcane shields, no,” he replied, strain evident in his voice. “Not shielding, anyway, redirecting. Lightning is practically natural, easy to do with my craft… If they’ve got a proper enchanter wand in there, we’re in serious—”

He broke off suddenly, falling to his own knees and holding out his other hand. Only when another barrage of lightning bolts went flashing harmlessly off to the opposite side of the carriage did she realize that their pursuer’s opposite door had opened and another dwarf was attacking them with a wand.

Meesie, who had been too small to be visible from Vandro’s carriage ahead, squealed furiously at Tallie, despite having to cling to Schwartz’s collar with all four paws to avoid being blown away.

“Now,” Schwartz snarled, “would be…a good…time!”

Tallie was already bringing up her staff; she had to creep forward till she was next to him and take aim from right under his arm to avoid the very real prospect of blasting him point-blank, given the way their perch was rocking.

She had never fired a staff before; she’d fired a crossbow, though. This had much less recoil, which seemed ironic.

Tallie wasn’t a great shot, but she managed to rake the side of the carriage, causing the dwarf with the wand to fall out with an audible cry. The carriage itself bucked from the impact, its upper left edge a scorched ruin and actually on fire in a couple of places, but the driver regained control and kept on after having to sacrifice a few yards of proximity. That was still easily within staff range.

Given that only one side in that firefight had any defensive measures, that pretty much decided the matter.

The barrage coming at them from the dwarf’s staff intensified so much that the weapon had to be in immediate danger of overheating; clearly their foe could analyze the tactical reality just as well. Tallie’s second shot punched right through the windscreen, though not on the side where the driver perched. She had been aiming for the driver’s seat, but these were hardly optimal shooting conditions. Her next shot at the driver didn’t hit him, either; their carriage bumped right as she fired, causing both herself and Schwartz to slide terrifyingly backward, and her staff jerked straight down as she fought for balance.

However, that meant the shot blasted one of their pursuer’s front wheels clean off.

The carriage crumpled forward onto itself like a horse with a broken leg, its fender plowing into the highway and causing its back end to reel upward. Too close to avoid it, the following truck plowed right into its ally, the driver managing to swerve only just enough to make the collision relatively indirect. It finished the work of smashing the vehicle, though, and knocking it fully off the road.

The truck came on, now missing one of its brilliant running lamps, but apparently undeterred.

“Nice shot,” Schwartz said breathlessly. Meesie squeaked and nodded.

Tallie grinned at him, not about to argue despite that shot being a complete accident. “Not so bad yourself. Hang tight, though, we’re not nearly out of this yet.”


“I say, is this ominous?” Layla asked nervously, peering through the rear window at the sole remaining lamp of the truck following them. “I mean, it seems odd that we’re doing so well. We are outnumbered, and I learned long ago to be suspicious of anything that seems to be going like a bard’s story.”

“A rider is only as good as his mount,” Glory replied calmly. “Those are cheap, mass-produced vehicles acquired locally for the sake of anonymity. Our carriages were the absolute top of the line even before Webs and I commissioned our various personal enhancements, and both are being driven by Butlers. No, this is proceeding more or less as I expected. The real test will come once we’re off the road.”

A persistent chiming rapidly grew in volume and their carriage swerved to hug the right edge of the road, following Vandro’s ahead, and followed a moment later by the truck behind. Another vehicle shot past them on their left—actually moving far slower than they, but quickly lost behind due to their speed, along with the sound of its driver frantically yanking his alarm bell in panic.

“That’s an important reminder,” Jasmine said grimly. “Storm or no storm, this is a public highway scarcely a stone’s throw from the Imperial capital. It’s amazing there’s not more traffic.”

“What do you want to bet that guy goes right to the nearest police with this story?” Rasha asked. “I mean, even if he couldn’t see the damage to these carriages, he’s about to pass two wrecked ones that have obviously been shot, and probably bodies in the road.”

“All according to plan,” Glory said soothingly, patting Rasha’s shoulder. “Official vehicles will be out soon anyway; this storm came on quickly, but they try to keep up a presence in dangerous weather in case anyone needs help. Secrecy is more than we can hope for. Remember, getting the Empire involved will be to our benefit. It’s the dwarves who attacked first.”

“Which means,” Jasmine reminded them, “they have an urgent need to stop us before the Imperials catch up.”

“It’s that thing I want to know about,” Glory murmured, staring back at the truck through narrowed eyes. “Those little Dawnco rigs didn’t last long, which was no surprise. That one, though… What have they got in there?”


“Why are we slowing—oh.”

Schwartz turned to face forward as the carriages decelerated. Up ahead, lights rose through the gloom, and after only moments longer the forest fell away to both sides.

Imperial foresters kept the immediate surroundings of Tiraas as pristine and natural as possible, a policy established by Emperor Sarsamon, the founder of the Tirasian Dynasty, but this forest was scarcely a century old. Before that, Tiraan Province had been thoroughly settled farming country, but during the Enchanter Wars battles had torn up the landscape, and in the lawless and tax free years which followed, much of the land had been despoiled by opportunistic companies, strip-mining and mass-logging until the once-proud capital stood surrounded by a virtual wasteland. Tirasian conservation efforts or no, however, this was still a populated region; the cities of Tiraas, Anteraas and Madouris stood quite close together, and there were numerous smaller towns and villages in the vicinity. The highway now passed straight through one.

Here, even more than in the capital, people had retreated inside to escape the cold, dark, and the rapidly thickening blanket of snow which had piled nearly a foot deep in only a few hours. It was far from deserted, however. Lights blazed from many windows, and as the quality of the highway’s paving improved with its transition to village main street, regularly spaced lamp posts appeared lining the way.

Two people were trudging along the snow-buried sidewalk, heads down and hands jammed in coat pockets; they ignored the short convoy of enchanted carriages which now passed through the town, having decelerated to a speed that would not garner attention. Another man stood on the corner of a cross-street, however, smoking a cigarette. Or at least he had been; it was blown from his fingers into the slush-filled gutter by an errant gust of wind, which he appeared not to notice, being occupied staring at their procession.

The two lead carriages were both clearly expensive, though Vandro’s also bore the significant scars of its rough treatment back in Tiraas. The hulking delivery truck bringing up the rear had also taken a beating, its front fender totally smashed by the recent impact with the wrecked Dawnco sedan, the lamp on that side torn clean off. Only Glory’s carriage bore no signs of damage. It did, however, have Schwartz and Tallie sitting on the roof, in the snow, he with a cheerfully burning little elemental on his shoulder, she clutching a battlestaff.

In the light of the village’s street lamps, they could, for the first time, see the dwarf ensconced in the truck’s driver seat. He tipped his hat politely to the staring man as they passed.

“We could make a fuss,” Tallie said quietly. “There must be police close to here, either Imperial or House Madouri. Tell ’em what’s been going on…”

“Glory picked out a destination for the ambush,” Schwartz replied quietly. “Jasmine has a plan, and anyway, we’ve got allies waiting for us who will be left high and dry if we don’t show. At least one is a friend of mine. Besides,” he added, directing a scowl at the truck behind, “I think Jasmine’s plans can be trusted, as a general rule.”

Catching his look, the dwarf driving the truck smiled and waved at him. Tallie calmly made a crude gesture in reply.

“Did you know Jasmine before we all wound up in that jail?” she asked him.

Schwartz grinned in spite of himself. “Well, I mean, sure. We were all in that warehouse before we were in jail.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped.

“Yes, I do,” he said more soberly, not meeting her eyes. “And no…I didn’t.”

“Mm.” Tallie studied him critically, the light fading around them; they were already moving toward the opposite fringe of the village. “And yet, you know something about her that I don’t?”

Schwartz glanced at her, then shifted uncomfortably. Meesie turned to give Tallie a look, pointed one paw at her and squeaked a warning.

“Mm hm,” Tallie said smugly. “Ah, well, people keep reminding me others are entitled to their secrets.”

“It’s probably significant if people have to keep reminding you of that,” Schwartz said pointedly.

“Let’s table this for later,” she suggested. “Sound like it’ll be a fun argument, and right now I just don’t think we can spare it the attention it deserves.”

Up ahead, Wilberforce signaled the end of their reprieve by pouring power into the wheels, his carriage blazing off into the darkness. Smythe kept Glory’s smoothly right behind it, and for a few moments they started to leave their pursuer in their wake. After dropping back until the truck’s remaining lamp was almost a pinprick, though, it began rapidly swelling again. The truck could not match a Falconer carriage for acceleration, but even with the best available traction charms and Butler drivers, everyone’s top speed was limited by what they could safely do in the snow and the darkness. In only another minute, the truck was once again bearing down on them.

Now, however, the vehicle emitted a sudden bang, and the flat roof of its cargo compartment—which made up the majority of its size—suddenly shot into the air, falling to the road behind them.

“Oh, what the hell now,” Tallie groaned. “Look at the size of that thing—they could have a mag cannon in there!”

“You can’t put magical artillery on top of anything running on wheel enchantments, either,” Schwartz said pedantically even as he stared at the truck. There was definitely some kind of mechanism in it; groaning and clacking noises were emerging, loud enough to be clear despite the wind blasting past them. “Mag cannons work by channeling a burst of otherwise standard wandfire through two tiny dimensional portals affixed back to back, which exponentially increases the power using the ambient energy that causes the universe itself to function. Most of a mag cannon’s bulk is the charmed apparatus that safely contains those spells, and even so, unstable portals mess up all kinds of other charms, especially anything designed to be specifically mobile and adaptive. Believe me, the military would love…

“Why in hell’s name does he think I care about this?” Tallie muttered to herself, taking aim with her staff. Meesie glanced over at her and shook her tiny head.

This time, her shot was true and struck the target head-on, but this time, it accomplished virtually nothing. Lightning veered off course, arcing over and into the open back of the truck.

“What the fuck?!” she screeched.

“I say, how clever!” Schwartz exclaimed.

“I thought you said you can’t shield an enchanted carriage!”

“You can’t, the innate wear on shields increases hugely at the speed carriages travel, and more importantly the necessary phasing to allow airflow catastrophically disrupts wheel enchantments—” He noticed her glare and broke off, wincing. “Ah, yes, but anyway, that’s not shielded, it’s got a lightning rod!”

“What the f—I thought those have to be grounded!”

“They do!” Schwartz said enthusiastically. “Which means it’s being redirected into some kind of power storage unit inside the vehicle! If I could only get to it, I could easily overload the thing—”

They both had to drop down and hold on for dear life as the highway went into a wide curve; despite Smythe’s obvious skill at the control runes, the carriage skidded, only righting itself properly once the road straightened out again an interminable few seconds later. At least the same disruption put a temporary halt to whatever was going on in the back of the truck, though the loud ticking and grinding resumed almost immediately.

“Then you’d be in there when it blew,” Tallie pointed out when she felt she could spare the attention for talking.

“Hmm.” Schwartz scowled back at the truck. “I bet I could get Meesie into there, but with no way of knowing exactly what she’d find, it’s impossible to give her the right tools or instructions. She’s not a very adaptive oh come on, are you kidding me?!”

The machinery finally revealed itself, a huge apparatus rising up above the truck’s driver compartment, its wide arms snapping outward and locking into place. It truly was an ingenious piece of engineering, and altogether remarkable that the dwarves had such a thing on hand. Of course, as military hardware went, the thing was so outdated the Imperial Army would have scoffed at it, but in their present situation, there could be no doubt what the ballista would do to their carriage at that range.

A bolt almost as long as Schwartz was tall was already locked into place; the pointed end aiming at them had been machined in a spiraling pattern like the head of a screw.

Tallie fired her staff right at it, with exactly the same disappointing result as before.

Schwartz, however, stood upright and held his hand aloft; after a second’s concentration, a ball of fire burst alight in his palm. Before the ballista could fire, he hurled it directly at the front of the truck.

The fireball missed the driver compartment, but impacted the truck directly on the flat wall behind it. Like nearly all carriages, the truck’s body was made of wood, and whatever lightning-deflecting apparatus it possessed did nothing at all against fire.

The truck’s frame caught as if soaked in oil; clearly Schwartz’s weaponized fireballs were packing more than just fire. Blazing merrily and spewing smoke, the truck kept after them without so much as slowing. And the entirely metal structure of the ballista itself was visible through the flame, still aimed right at them.

Another loud cranking noise sounded from within.

“Dodge!” Tallie screamed at the top of her lungs, throwing herself flat and pounding a foot on the roof of the carriage. “DODGE!”

The sound the ballista made was oddly melodic, though far too deep and powerful to be rightly called a twang.

Smythe got the message; the carriage abruptly swerved as widely as the space of the highway would allow.

Tallie felt the wind of the massive projectile whip past her. If she had not lain flat and if Smythe hadn’t adjusted their course, it would have gone right through her body. The bastards were either worse shots than she, or weren’t even aiming at the carriage.

There came a crash from ahead, followed by the screaming of braking wheels on the highway, and she turned her head to look, horrified by what she might see.

Vandro’s carriage was not a loss, however. The ballista bolt had grazed it, ripping off a chunk of its roof, but Wilberforce fought it back into a steady course even as she watched. Smythe had to decelerate sharply to avoid plowing into his rear fenders, causing Tallie and Schwartz to slide toward the front of their rooftop.

“All right, that is it!” Schwartz growled, and hurled Meesie at the truck.

She transformed in midair, plummeting to the road to land directly in front of it. The truck did not slow.

Its front bumper, what remained of it, crumpled completely upon impact with the huge cat; the truck rode high enough off the ground that she was swept beneath it rather than smashing directly through its body. However, in that form, Meesie was too big for its wheels to simply roll over.

The entire truck bucked off the highway, veered, skidded, and flew into a spin. As their carriages accelerated away, their pursuer was traveling completely sideways when it finally toppled over, smashing the intricate collapsible ballista protruding from its bed, still burning fiercely.

Tallie’s scream of triumph managed to compress a surprising number of obscenities into only a few seconds. In the middle of it, Meesie popped back into existence on Schwartz’s shoulder, herself emitting a shrill tirade that sounded unmistakably of cursing despite containing no words.

“Look!” Schwartz shouted, pointing ahead of them. The forest opened up to reveal a broad field; Wilberforce and then Smythe slowed their respective vehicles, turning through a gate which lead into the middle of it. If there was a road, it was completely buried under the snow. Up ahead, there loomed the landmark Glory had pointed out to Jasmine as the ideal ambush point: an old fortification from the Enchanter Wars, abandoned but left there by the Imperial government as a reminder. Its crumbling battlements covered nearly an acre, with the round central structure rising five stories from its center almost wide enough to appear squat.

“We made it!” Schwartz crowed. “Principia and her squad are in there waiting for us!”

Before she could even reply, the night lit up like noon.

The size of the explosion was such that the century-old fortress dissolved entirely in a column of fire.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

11 – 38

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.

“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”

Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.

“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”

“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”

“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”

“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”

“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”


“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”

She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.

“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”

He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”

“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”

“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”

“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.

“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”

“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”

He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”

“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”

“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”

Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”

“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”

She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”

After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”

Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.


Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.

“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”

“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”

“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”

“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.

“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”

“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.

Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”

“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.

Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.

Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.

“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”

“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.

“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.

Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.

Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.

Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.

Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.

Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.

The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.

“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.

Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”

“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.

Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”

“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”

“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”

“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”

“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.

Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”

“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.

“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”

“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”

“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”

“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”

“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”

“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”

“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”

“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.

The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.

“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”

“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”

“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”

“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”

“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.

Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.

Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.

Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.

“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”

“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”

Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.

Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”

“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >